EDMONTON, AB - With all eyes on the flair and playmaking ability of Jack Hughes, the projected first-overall pick attested that he wasn't the most creative set of hands on the United States National Team Development Program roster this season.
That mantle, for the top prospect at this year's NHL Draft, belongs to Trevor Zegras.
"He's the most creative player on our team," Hughes said of his USNTDP teammate. "He thinks outside the box, he's really smart and super crafty with his hands and movements. He's really slippery. He's an easy guy to play with knowing he'll always give you great passes."
The USNTDP was stacked this past campaign, boasting five projected top-10 picks in this year's draft class that could benefit any franchise looking to profit from the program's deep talent pool.
Zegras, an offensive weapon whose playmaking, goalscoring, and two-way ability can be deployed at centre or on the wing, became one of the principle players tasked with feeding the likes of Hughes, Cole Caufield, Matthew Boldy and Alex Turcotte while chipping in a number of his own markers with 26 goals and 61 helpers in 60 contests for the U-18 program.
Video: COMBINE | Trevor Zegras
You don't have to look far beyond the USNTDP to find a self-professed comparable in Patrick Kane, who's more than succeeded as a forward at the NHL level with his quick hands, shot, and high hockey IQ after a season with the program in Plymouth, Michigan before going first overall to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.
"I think it comes from watching a lot of hockey," the 6-foot-0, 180-pound forward said to EdmontonOilers.com at the NHL Scouting Combine. "I think my guy growing up was Patrick Kane with all the crazy passes he made, so I kind of just try and emulate that and put it in my game a little bit.
"He's a U.S. hockey player obviously, so I think of idolized that. He played for the NTDP earlier, but when he was playing for Chicago winning all those Stanley Cups, it was awesome watching him."
Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller is another USNTDP graduate who's become a bit of a mentor to Zegras in past months as a training partner, and Zegras is following in his footsteps to the NCAA and Boston University next season in a growing trend of electing for the college route around junior hockey despite having his rights owned by the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL.
"I think BU has done a really good job bringing in high-end guys like Keller, McAvoy, and Eichel developing them and then acclimating to the NHL pretty quickly," Zegras said. "That's kind of the path I want to take. It's pretty good to see those guys go through it."
What's making everything twice as nice for the Bedford, New York product is the experience of sharing the motions of the season and the draft with his teammates together, with the potential addition of competing against one another in the coming years with 22 of his 24 teammates having committed to NCAA programs.
"I spent the last two years with these guys - road trips, plane rides, kind of going across the country with those guys," Zegras said. "So you grow a bond with them, and going through this by yourself is pretty cool but doing it with your 20 best friends is even better."