As the U.S. quests to take the gold medal for the eighth time in the last 11 years and win its 15th consecutive medal, the 2018 U18 tournament MVP, who will likely be the #1 overall pick of the New Jersey Devils in June’s NHL Draft, is an integral piece of the puzzle.
This dynamic, speedy 17-year-old centre leads the US National Team Development Program’s all-time scoring derby with 208 points. However, Hughes is still seeking his first IIHF gold medal after settling for U18 silver last year in Chelyabinsk and U20 silver this year in Vancouver. So he should be hungry and ready to go.
Here are 3 hot questions about Jack Hughes.
1) Can Hughes break Nikita Kucherov’s single-tournament points record?
That’s a solid “Maybe.” Kucherov, this year’s NHL scoring champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning, racked up a whopping 21 (11+10=21) points at age 17 at the 2011 tournament in Germany. Hughes led the 2018 tournament with 12 points (5+7=12).
Let’s break down how the kid did last year. Hughes was never held pointless in a U18 group stage game and only once in a playoff game (the 3-2 final loss to Finland).
Canada 6, USA 4 (1+2=3)
USA 8, Switzerland 5 (2+1=3)
Sweden 3, USA 1 (0+1=1)
USA 8, Belarus 0 (0+2=2)
USA 5, Russia 1 (1+1=2)
USA 4, Czech Republic 1 (1+0=1)
Finland 3, USA 2 (0+0=0)
Kucherov’s 2011 game-by-game production, though, shows how hard it’ll be to beat the Russian superstar. Hughes has never had a four-point outing in U18 competition, whereas Kucherov recorded four or more points in three out of his first four games in his lone U18 tourney.
Russia 8, Slovakia 2 (2+2=4)
Russia 5, Germany 4 (1+3=4)
USA 4, Russia 3 (2+0=2)
Russia 8, Switzerland (3+2=5)
Quarter-final: Russia 5, Finland 2 (1+1=2)
Semi-final: Sweden 3, Russia 1 (0+1=1)
Bronze medal game: Russia 6, Canada 4 (2+1=3)
After what could be a tough, tight opener against Sweden on Thursday, Hughes will need to make preliminary-round hay against underdog Slovakia, defensively suspect Russia, and newly promoted Latvia.
2) Will Hughes be MVP again?
Frankly, it’s not surprising nobody has ever repeated as tournament MVP before.
Goalie Jake Allen was the inaugural winner when he backstopped Canada to gold in 2008, but then MVP honours weren’t awarded at all from 2009 to 2014.
Then consider that in this age-restricted tournament, most players only suit up one year or two at most, and each year of maturity makes a huge difference with teens. So Hughes’ predecessors – Auston Matthews (2015), Clayton Keller (2016), and Kristian Vesalainen (2017) – weren’t in a position to earn back-to-back MVPs.
If anyone can do it, Jack can.
3) Will Jack join his brother Quinn in Slovakia?
The Hughes brothers didn’t get as much of a chance as they would have liked to play together at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria. An injury suffered against Slovakia in the 2-1 tournament-opening win limited Jack to four assists in four games.
After a strong season with the University of Michigan and five games with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, Quinn has opted to bring his blueliner skills to the U.S. men’s Worlds team for the second straight year.
So the door is open.
That would be a whole lotta hockey. It would take a special U18 performance from a healthy Jack to make that jump. But Jack is a whole lotta hockey player, and USA Hockey has a long history of icing youngsters in senior-level tournaments overseas.
And when you consider that defenceman Miro Heiskanen, for instance, represented Finland last season at the World Juniors in Buffalo, the Olympics in Korea, and the Worlds in Denmark, playing three IIHF tournaments isn’t an impossible feat.