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Hughes to make Devils debut at Prospects Challenge

No. 1 pick of 2019 Draft, will face Sabres, Bruins, Penguins hopefuls in tournament

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Jack Hughes will play his first game for the New Jersey Devils at the Prospects Challenge at Harborcenter beginning Friday.

The Buffalo Sabres host the round-robin tournament, with prospects from the Devils, Sabres, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Each team will play three games in four days, though Hughes might not play all three games.

"I've had a really good summer of training, and mentally I'm ready to get going," said Hughes, the No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. "I feel really confident and really good in my body and my abilities right now going into camp."

The Prospects Challenge will give the 18-year-old center and other New Jersey prospects an opportunity to impress prior to the start of NHL training camp on Sept. 12.

"Playing in this tournament is a completely different beast than scrimmaging against your peers wearing a red or white Devils jersey," New Jersey assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "It's important for us to see the competitiveness of our players and kind of where we're at with how we drafted and where we stand, comparatively speaking, to these three other organizations."

Hughes is expected to be a top-six forward for the Devils this season, possibly centering the second line behind Nico Hischier.

"I'm not sure how many games Jack will play (at the Prospects Challenge) but it's important for him to be part of his peer group and part of a team that represents the Devils," Fitzgerald said. "It's exciting for not only Jack but for the franchise, for our fan base. Once he officially puts on that No. 86 jersey, it's a continuation of what we've been trying to do here since Day One in rebuilding the organization."

Video: Jack Hughes stands atop the Top Prospects List

Hughes (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), a left-handed shot, led the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team last season with 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists). He holds NTDP records for assists (154) and points (228) in 110 games in two seasons.

He led the 2019 IIHF World Under-18 Championship with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) for the United States, one point shy of the single-tournament record of 21 (10 goals, 11 assists) set by Nikita Kucherov for Russia in 2011. Hughes set a career tournament record with 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) in 14 games with the 2018 and 2019 World U-18s, passing Alex Ovechkin, who had 31 points (23 goals, eight assists) in 14 games for Russia at the 2002 and 2003 tournaments.

Hughes finished his season with three assists in seven games for the U.S. at the 2019 IIHF World Championship. Playing with and against NHL players, he averaged 13:52 of ice time.

The brother of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes, Jack is trying to become the first NTDP player to go directly from the draft to playing in the NHL.

"Jack has the skill set, and most importantly the compete level and the hockey IQ that are just off the charts," Fitzgerald said. "We're really excited about that, but it's also exciting seeing our other prospects. It's important for them because it could give someone one more exhibition game that could help them make our team and get that much closer to a spot.

"You know the old saying, 'You only get one chance for a good first impression.' That's kind of where a lot of these guys are at."

Fitzgerald said Devils coach John Hynes will determine Hughes' role this season. He's expected to average 18-20 minutes a game and have a spot on the power play.

"Jack's play will determine to [John] how much he will be used; it's no different than how Nico began his career," Fitzgerald said.

Hischier, who played at the Prospects Challenge three months after the Devils selected him No. 1 in the 2017 NHL Draft, began his NHL career as the No. 3 center before earning his way to the top line with left wing Taylor Hall.

"The luxury of this is we have a kid (Hischier) going into his third year who understands the League as a top center," Fitzgerald said. "We have Travis Zajac, who has been nothing but a true pro who can still contribute and play, and most importantly understands his role.

"Because of this we can allow Jack to grow and develop at the pace he needs. When he pops and is exceeding expectations as an 18-year-old, doing things you'd expect of a 20-year-old, then you're just playing with house money."

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