New Jersey Devils fans may feel that in many ways the team's future has arrived as Jack Hughes has already made his NHL debut.
But 500 miles away from Prudential Center on Sunday afternoon, a trio of players who may one day join Hughes were playing at the Kitchener Auditorium when the Kitchener Rangers host the Ottawa 67's. Forwards Graeme Clarke and Mitchell Hoelscher suited for the 67's, while the Rangers will have Michael Vukojevic anchoring their blueline.
Video: HIGHLIGHTS | Vukojevic's SO Goal
The game would have had a fourth Devil's prospect, but 67's defenseman Nikita Okhotyuk has not yet returned from an injured finger, though he is expected back soon.
"He's down to get looked at in New Jersey right now," said 67's General Manager James Boyd, "Nikita would like (his return) to be yesterday but right now he's a week or two away - mid-October."
After Hughes, and starting with Okhotyuk at 61st, the Devils also drafted Clarke (81st) and Vukojevic (83rd) at the NHL Draft in Vancouver. Combined with Hoelscher's selection a year earlier, that gave the Devils three prospects on the 67's, a team that is defending its OHL Eastern Conference title this season.
Boyd saw little beforehand that events in Vancouver would unfold as they did but welcomes having such a strong connection to the NHL club.
"We didn't get any indication that they were looking," said Boyd, "Teams are generally very thorough with how they evaluate…and New Jersey usually keeps their intentions fairly quiet but we were happy that it (unfolded) as it did."
Boyd's connections go beyond the current Devils crop he currently has at his disposal. He was the head coach/GM of the Mississauga Steelheads in 2015-16 when the Devils drafted current farmhands, Micheal McLeod and Nathan Bastian.
Boyd says there is no magic formula for trying to prepare players to make the jump from Canadian major junior hockey, to the professional ranks.
"We have a program in place here both on-ice and off-ice where we work with kids to get better at all areas of their game," said Boyd. "These guys are going to be better players in March than they are right now in October."
Which is not so say that things are going poorly right now. Clarke and Hoelscher are both set to build upon their selection by the Devils, this season with the 67's.
"Graeme came back from New Jersey a different player," said Boyd. "We had him playing with Marco Rossi until Rossi got suspended. They worked good together, with Rossi's playmaking and Graeme being a kind-of Johnny-on-the-spot."
"And Mitchell now too is playing in an increased role, especially with Rossi now suspended. He has a great opportunity right now."
Clarke's situation is interesting on a few levels. A former teammate/linemate of Hughes in midget hockey, he had an 80-goal season for the elite Toronto Marlboros program, with Hughes feeding him the puck on many of those markers. That led to his selection by the 67's in the OHL Priority draft, where he was thought to potentially be as high as a first-round NHL pick as late as Christmas time last year.
A perception that he was too one-dimensional hurt his draft stock but Clarke himself pointed out after the Devils selected him that he worked hard at his play on both sides of the puck. That defensive commitment was evident in his increased responsibilities during Ottawa's long playoff run last spring.
Boyd says that Clarke's transition is continuing.
"He's a much better two-way player now than when we made him a first-round pick," said Boyd, pointing out that the adjustment is not always easy for players who show such great offensive gifts and instincts from a young age.
"Graeme is learning to be that type of player."
Ottawa lost in the OHL Final last season to the Guelph Storm in six games. With the Devils trio all returning on head coach Andre Tourigny's squad, and helped by Rossi, who is expected to be selected in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft, the 67's are considered one of the league's favorites.
The Rangers also lost to the Storm in last year's playoffs, bowing out in four games in the first round. Under the direction of former NHL defenceman Jay McKee, the Rangers are improved this year with Vukojevic expected to be one of the team's leaders.
Clarke, Hoelscher, and Vukojevic are all vying for a spot on the Team OHL roster that will play Team Russia in the upcoming CIBC Canada-Russia series next month at six different sites across Canada.
Okhotyuk and another Devils selection from Vancouver, Daniil Misyul, also a defenseman currently playing for Yaroslav Lokomotiv, are in contention for a place on Team Russia's blueline.