BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA -- Amidst questions about whether he was strong enough to play against men and if he could have the same kind of offensive impact at this level as he's had against his peers, Jack Hughes came to the 2019 IIHF World Championship with two goals in mind: learning everything he could about what it takes to play against pros and winning a gold medal for USA Hockey.
After USA's 4-3 loss to Russia in the quarterfinal, the gold medal is off the table, but after being a healthy scratch against Canada to close out the preliminary round, the projected first overall selection of the upcoming NHL Draft put together his best game of the tournament, earned two assists and was named Team USA's player of the game.
Hughes showed that when it comes to his potential, he's just scratching the surface.
"He was a superstar tonight," stated USA head coach Jeff Blashill after the game. "I thought he made tons of plays, created against some of the very best players in the world and I thought he was a superstar. So, it says a lot about him. Obviously, he was disappointed sitting out and all he did was dig in and show everybody, including myself, what a high level player he is."
Hughes has been undeniably dominant against his peers this past season earning 2.24 points per game for the US National Team Development Program and shattering the program's scoring record of 190 previously set by USA teammate Clayton Keller in 2016 by scoring 228 points in 110 games
He's known for his elite speed, agility, vision, hockey IQ, passing, playmaking and scoring ability.
In short, he's pretty good at hockey.
At the U-18 world championship last month, Hughes set the all-time scoring record after he notched 20 points in seven games to give him 32 points in his U-18 career. One better than Alex Ovechkin's 31 set in 2003.
"I feel like I solidified my draft status at U-18s," Hughes said at the start of the men's tournament. "Coming here wasn't about the draft. This was just wanting to play more hockey and being around pros for three weeks. It's maybe the best team USA has brought got over here in a lot of years. So, to be a part of that wasn't something I was going to pass up. I want to learn from them whatever I can, work on things this summer and I think it will really help me next year."
Where he'll play next year is another question swirling around the 5-foot-10, 170 pound just-turned-18-year-old. The list of possible destinations has gotten exponentially shorter after the New Jersey Devils won the NHL Draft Lottery with the New York Rangers selecting right behind them.
Devils head coach John Hynes had the benefit of working with Hughes during the tournament as he was one of Team USA's assistant coaches.
"As a person, he's been really fun to be around. He's a good teammate. He's coachable. And, you can tell he loves the game," Hynes said. "When you look at him on the ice, he's very competitive. He wants the puck on his stick. He wants to be challenged and play in tough, tight situations, which is great to see, especially from a young kid. He's incredibly confident and he doesn't back down. In practice, he's trying to beat guys like Ryan Suter. So, you can see there's a drive and a desire to be an exceptionally good player."
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Hynes also noted Hughes' speed and skating, his vision and hockey sense and his playmaking abilities before concluding: "There's no question, he's a game-breaking player and will develop into a franchise player that will help drive a team and play a top line center role in the NHL.
"If he does end up becoming a New Jersey Devil," Hynes continued. "I think that the fact that I've had the opportunity to get to know him and a relationship has been created and we've been working together, that's a big step in having a young talented player feel comfortable in his first year in the NHL to help him be able to make an impact sooner rather than later."
Even before the quarterfinal game, where Hughes took a big step into the spotlight against an incredibly talented Russian team, Blashill was impressed with his inner drive and work ethic.
"So much gets made about who gets picked number one and I'm sure it feels good on draft day, but people don't remember who got picked first. They remember who were the greatest players of all time and the only way to be a great player is to get better every day," he stated. "Nobody comes into the NHL perfect. Nobody comes in ready made or the same as when they leave. The best players get better every day. The fact that he understands that the draft is just one step in the whole process and that he doesn't care how this tournament might affect his draft status is what's going to make him special. He wants to learn. He wants to get better. He wants to be around players like [Patrick] Kane and [Dylan] Larkin and [Jack] Eichel and see how they prepare and the little tricks they have.
"So, I think it speaks volumes that Jack has that strong desire to get better and continue to build his game," he continued. "This is a tremendous opportunity for him and he will be an even better hockey player because of it."
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Outside from the bigger, stronger players and the faster pace of play, Hughes said playing in front of sell out crowds filled with rowdy fans was another benefit of playing in the world championship that will help him make the adjustment to the NHL.
"This is like the U-18's on steroids," he stated. "All the games are packed. All the fans from all the different countries are cheering and singing and going nuts the whole game. The crowds are crazy and it's really great for me to be able to play in front of them and get used to this kind of atmosphere because I know I'll be seeing it in the NHL."
Hughes finished the tournament with three points in seven games and after playing a full season with the NTDP, plus the world junior championship, U-18 world championship and now the men's world championship, he said he 's looking forward to some down time and "definitely won't be putting on skates for a little while."
Hughes will head to the NHL Scouting Combine next week to meet with various teams and the media and is scheduled to go through the physical tests next Saturday, but is excited for what's next in his career.
"This year was a good year for me personally, but I wanted to win a gold medal for USA Hockey and I had three chances to do it and we couldn't get it done. That's pretty disappointing," said Hughes who earned silver at world juniors and bronze at the U-18s. "But, I feel like I learned a lot and got better as a person and a player and I'm looking forward to the draft and to see where I'm going, but there's a lot of work for me to do this summer. I want to be as ready as I possibly can because my goal isn't just to make it to the NHL. I want to be an impact player and help my team win championships."