BUFFALO, N.Y.—Dan Marr will never forget the first time Jack Hughes landed on his radar as a potential top NHL draft prospect.
It happened last summer, when the NHL Central Scouting director was attending a skills camp in Toronto.
After listing New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and then-Islanders captain John Tavares as the best three players on the ice, Marr added: “The next best player was Jack Hughes.”
Even at five-foot-ten and 170 pounds, Marr said the 17-year-old stood out for a variety of reasons.
“It was a series of drills that they were doing that involved skating, quickness, speed, execution, precision. And right away you could see he already has an NHL shot,” Marr said Friday, speaking at the NHL’s annual pre-draft scouting combine being held in Buffalo. “So he’s got the talent that he belongs in that group.”
Very little has happened to change Marr or anyone else’s mind since.
From Orlando, Florida, Hughes is Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater after spending the past two seasons setting USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s record by combining for 228 points (74 goals, 154 assists) in 110 games.
Finland’s Kaapo Kakko is the top-ranked European skater after completing a season in which he helped his nation complete a gold-medal sweep of international titles by winning the world championship last weekend, the world junior title in January and the Under-18 title last year.
The two are projected to be selected with one of the two top picks — the Devils select first followed by the New York Rangers — at the NHL draft at Vancouver, British Columbia on June 21-22.
After joking he’d look good in either a red Devils’ or blue Rangers’ jersey, Hughes said he’d obviously prefer to go first.
“You always dream of being No. 1,” Hughes said. “You don’t dream of being two, three or four when you’re a young kid.”
Hughes is also aware of how he and Kakko will draw comparisons with the likelihood of the two playing on Metropolitan Division rivals.
“We’ll be linked to each other for a lot of years with the Rangers and Devils right there,” Hughes said.
Kakko is not attending the combine because the weeklong event, which includes player-team interviews and medical testing, began a day after Finland beat Canada to win the world championships in Slovakia on Sunday.
“It has zero affect really,” Marr said about Kakko’s absence. “I think the teams understand that. And the teams at the top, they’re just going to have to spend a little bit more time with him when he comes over for the draft.”
The two players differ in size and style of play.
At six-foot-two and 194 pounds, Kakko is known for his goal-scoring ability and considered more of a power forward.
He led Finland with six goals in 10 games at the World Championship. His 22 goals in the Finnish Elite League last season were the most by a draft-eligible player.
Hughes is a swift-skating, playmaking centre. He comes from a hockey family. His brother Quinn Hughes is a defenceman who was selected by Vancouver with the No. 7 pick in the draft last year. His father, Jim Hughes, is a former hockey coach, who also served as the Toronto Maple Leafs director of player development.
Hughes credits the time he spend playing youth hockey in Toronto as playing a key role in his development.
“Toronto’s probably the capital of the hockey world. You win the Greater Toronto Hockey League finals, you think it’s the Stanley Cup,” he said. “Do I think I’d be the player I am today without Toronto? Probably not. … That’s the reason I’m here today.”
Hughes also played at the worlds and finished with four assists in four games for the United States, which was eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinal round.
Among the highlights was getting the opportunity to play with NHL stars such as Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Hughes grew up idolizing Kane as they’re both undersized forwards who play a similar style.
It came as a shock to Hughes upon hearing Kane pay him a compliment by telling NHL.com he believes Hughes “does a lot of things better than me.”
“You almost think he’s full of (baloney),” Hughes said, before listing the three Stanley Cups and numerous other awards Kane has won. “You name it, he’s got it. To hear your name out of his mouth is one thing. To hear him say those nice things about you truly shows how good of a person he is.”