NHL Notebook: In 17-year-old Jack Hughes, USA hockey has its next superstar in waiting

Boston University coach Albie O’Connell was posed the same question that has been lobbed at a number of collegiate and junior hockey coaches over the past couple of years.

Just how does one stop Jack Hughes?

At 5-foot-10, 168 pounds, the 17-year-old center may not look like much out on the ice — until he gets the puck on his stick.

An explosive skater with deceptive moves and a knack for spotting a scoring bid three steps ahead of the opposing defense, there’s a reason why Hughes is the odds-on favorite to be the eighth American player to be taken first overall in an NHL Draft come June. 

“It’s pretty hard,” O’Connell said of stopping Hughes. “He’s hard to contain. There’s only a few players with that sort of speed and mobility and hockey sense. He’s kind of the complete package. That’s probably why he’s maybe the number one selected player in the draft. He was dangerous every time he was out on the ice.”

Even though the Terriers managed to prevent Hughes from lighting the lamp during Friday’s exhibition matchup against the U.S. National Team Development Program’s (NTDP) U-18 squad, the Orlando native still made his mark on the scoresheet — notching a pair of secondary assists and leading all skaters with six shots on goal.

Hughes may not be as bombastic as Auston Matthews when it comes to his shot, but the crafty center was a thorn in the side of the Terriers all night, using his speed and shiftiness to break into BU’s zone, find seams in the opposing defense and win puck battles along the boards — often by simply jetting away from danger before a check could even be delivered.

Hughes does much more than pass the eye test of an elite NHL prospect — putting up some absurd video-game numbers since joining the NTDP in 2017.

As a 16-year-old skater, Hughes tallied 116 points — breaking the record for most points by a U17 player by 34, surpassing the previous record set by Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller.

Considering the all-time record for points in a season for an NTDP player was Matthews tallying 117 in 2014-15, Hughes has a good chance to reach that mark this year, with the center up to 11 points through his first eight games of the 2018-19 campaign.

BU freshman Joel Farabee — the 14th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft by the Flyers — knows firsthand what Hughes can do with the puck on his stick, skating to Hughes’ left on the NTDP’s top line for the second half of last season.

Farabee, who tallied 76 points over 62 games last year, noted that the game tends to slow down when Hughes has the puck, often setting up in his office just outside the slot and hitting his teammates with some crisp feeds.

“You watch him. He has the puck on his stick most of the game,” Farabee said. “There’s a reason why he’s a pretty special player. I was a really good fit on his line, just being able to get him in the puck and playing with him. He definitely helped me and I definitely helped him. It was a really good time last year.”

Hughes is just the latest in a growing pipeline of American-born talent to come out of the NTDP, joining a recent wave headlined by Matthews and Jack Eichel — who likely would have gone first overall in most NHL Drafts (if not for that McDavid fella).

The 2018-19 NTDP U-18 team is shaping up to be one of the most talented squads that the program has put together, with Sportsnet’s first 2019 NHL Draft prospect rankings listing eight Team USA players in the top 30 — including Millis native and Boston College commit Matthew Boldy (No. 12).

There will be only one NHL franchise that does enough to “Lose for Hughes” in 2019, but given the growing status of the NTDP and USA Hockey as a whole, there will be plenty of other teams lucky to bring aboard a top American-born hockey player once the 2019 Draft gets underway this summer.

“It’s amazing,” O’Connell said of the 2018-19 U18 squad. “It’s very similar to the year when Matthews, (Matthew) Tkachuk and (Jordan) Greenway, that ‘97-born team with (Charlie) McAvoy, (Noah) Hanifin and (Zach) Werenski. You’re talking about household names in the National Hockey League.

“But they’ve got a similar team. It doesn’t happen every year, every birth class, but the 2001-born class in the United States is about as good as it has been in a long time. We’ll be seeing those names for a long time. It’s great. It’s great for USA hockey, it’s great for the National Development Program and obviously, USA hockey is making strides. It’s exciting.”


Providence Bruins looking to get rolling after slow start

The Providence Bruins closed out their weekend slate of games with a 5-2 victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers Saturday, with Trent Frederic tallying a pair of goals and Zane McIntyre stopping 25 of the 27 shots that came his way.

Even with Saturday’s win, it’s been a slow start this season for the P-Bruins, who currently sit in seventh place in the Atlantic Division with a 2-4-1 record. Even with plenty of promising prospects — some of which were just on the cusp of making the NHL roster — Providence and its skaters have largely underperformed, with a skater like Peter Cehlarik sitting out of one game after recording four assists through six games.

Bruce Cassidy, who served as Providence’s bench boss for five seasons, said that it’s not shocking for top prospects to be slow out of the gate in an AHL campaign, especially if they came up just short of an NHL spot during training camp.

“We’re hoping those guys continue to grow their game and a part of that’s offense,” Cassidy said earlier this week. “Some of it’s a result, probably, of their start. Didn't get off to the one — they’re not winning games and production is down. I rely more on Donnie (Sweeney), who goes to see the games and Jay (Leach) and his staff down there. I get feedback on who’s playing the right way, why they’re not getting points, are they generating offense and it’s just not going in, are they lazy and that’s why the numbers — and you get different feedback from players.

“I’m not going to run through every one, but clearly, right now — (Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson) had a great opening weekend, last weekend not as good as the previous one. It’s probably why his numbers were good the first week — Peter, I’m not sure what’s going on.

“Sometimes what happens, you come in, have a good camp, you don’t make the team and you’re disappointed, you go down there and you drag that with you, and that’s where he’s got to be a good pro, if that’s the case. You’ve got to put it behind you and control your own environment. I dealt with that with players coming down for a long time. Part of that is getting their morale back up, staying in the moment and there could be a little bit of that going on as well.”


Cassidy delves into Pastrnak’s development

After watching him thrive as an 18-year-old down in Providence, Cassidy knew that David Pastrnak was destined for big things at the NHL level.

But to reach the level of production he’s at now? While Pastrnak always had the speed and the stick skills to generate scoring chances in a hurry, Cassidy noted earlier this week that the Czech winger had to work hard to improve other areas of his game to morph himself into the top-line forward he is today.

“He was always dynamic, always had the good one-on-one ability to create on his own,” Cassidy said. “At Providence at 18, he was good at that. Where I think the biggest difference is, I guess, from now to then is his shot. I didn’t see it coming along this well, to be honest with you. He scored a lot of goals in tight, deking and wrist shots, but that one-timer, he’s really built that into his game as one of the elite shooters now. And his strength on the puck, he’s always had strong hands.

“He’d get into battles and he’d fish pucks out as a young kid, but I think it was more with his hands. Now, as soon as it was a body battle, he’d get knocked around. He’s certainly grown, if you look at pictures of him when he was 18 to now, he’s a man. Whereas then, he was a boy. So that’s what you always hope will happen to some of the other younger guys, they’ll develop in kind of that same pattern. I’ve seen it with Jake (DeBrusk) now, a little bit."


Checking in with other prospects

Elsewhere in the B’s pipeline of prospects, Jack Studnicka is now up to 12 points through nine games with the Oshawa Generals, while Maine netminder Jeremy Swayman had a rough go of it against No. 3 Minnesota Duluth on Friday, surrendering seven goals through two periods before getting the hook. He took another loss against Duluth on Saturday, stopping 41 shots and relinquishing three goals in the 3-2 loss.

One player to keep tabs on over the next month with Providence is 28-year-old Jan Kovar, who signed a PTO deal with the team after getting cut by the Islanders in early October and refusing to report to Bridgeport following the transaction — which caused his contract to be terminated.

Kovar is looking to break into hockey in North America after ripping up the KHL over the past five seasons, producing 286 points over 285 games with Magnitogorsk Metallurg. So far, he’s off to a good start, scoring a goal in Saturday’s win over Bridgeport.


College hockey player battling cancer

A talented hockey player set to suit up for his freshman season at Springfield’s American International College is now in the fight for his life.

Eric Otto out of Burnsville, Minnesota quickly realized during preseason training that he was often out of breath and losing weight, leading to an extensive medical evaluation that resulted in a diagnosis of Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — with 21-year-old forward set to undergo 12 rounds of ABVD chemotherapy over the next six months.

The college hockey community has rallied around Otto following the news of his diagnosis, with his teammates placing purple stickers — for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma awareness — on their helmets and even opposing teams donning purple stick tape during games.

In order to help cover medical costs, travel, and nutrition/meal expenses, a GoFundMe was established for Otto with a goal of $35,000. So far, the campaign is up to just over $33,000. A link to the GoFundMe can be found here.

Best of luck to Eric in his fight against this terrible disease.