In the previous installments of the Sabres 2021 Draft Class series, we have covered Michigan defenseman Owen Power and Michigan center Matty Beniers. The next – and perhaps last – prospect who has garnered any serious attention as a number one overall pick is defenseman Luke Hughes of the US National U18 Team. For the record, he has committed to play next year at Michigan so he could join the first two members of our series as a teammate if all three return to college for more seasoning instead of turning pro. It’s a Michigan kind of year.
The surname of Hughes probably sounds familiar to readers as Luke will be the third Hughes brother to be selected in the first round in recent years. Quinn was drafted 7th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018 and Jack was selected 1st overall a year later by the New Jersey Devils.
It’s kind of a family trait to get selected in the top-10 of the draft.
The youngest Hughes brother is also one of the youngest players in the draft. As a September 9, 2003 birthday, he only barely made it into this year’s draft before the cutoff date of September 15. Luke Hughes would have been in the 2022 draft if he had born only a week later and perhaps that is a reason that he is only occasionally seen as a viable selection first overall. In a sport like the NHL where the draft age is already young at 18, Luke Hughes is a “young” 18 which makes him even harder to project. After all, a year in development for a teenager playing against other teenagers can make a huge difference depending on how fast they develop relative to each other.
In contrast, 2020 Sabres first round draft pick Jack Quinn was born on September 19, 2001, meaning that Quinn was one of the older players in last year’s draft and is nearly two years older than Luke Hughes despite being only one draft year apart. For those curious, Owen Power, another candidate for 1st overall is a November birthday.
But enough about that. Back to Luke.
Luke figures to be a strong skater at the NHL level like his defenseman brother Quinn and it is evident in the game tape as he is clearly a highly mobile defenseman. His skating is undoubtedly better than Owen Power. Luke may be the little brother of the Hughes trio in terms of age, but in terms of height, he’s the largest of the three at 6’2” which means that he could have an easier time than his brother Quinn boxing out forwards in the defensive zone once he can put some additional weight on his 176-pound frame. Most of the scouting reports indicate that the defensive zone coverage is a work in progress and that his offensive acumen is the primary selling point toward him going first but he can certainly improve on his defensive game at higher levels. He has the reach and the size to become a better player in his own zone and the game tape of him killing penalties looks very promising.
The most surprising thing I saw from Hughes was not his skating though. He has a nasty half-clapper. It is deadly accurate with excellent velocity. See the highlight compilation by Youtuber “Devils In The Details Podcast” below and go to 6:10. (Another side shoutout to that Youtuber. It’s excellent work to isolate video on these prospects which has made my life so much easier). That is a nice, compact windup for a slapshot that can deliver a lot of force in a confined area. Don’t get me wrong, his skating is probably his best attribute and is undoubtedly the selling point for Hughes, but that was fun to watch.
To be completely honest here: I did not expect to like Hughes as much as I did when I went to watch his tape. He has excellent skating of course, but the upside defensively with his size seems enormous. He has the elite attributes of a top pick, especially when considering his relative youth compared to his draft-eligible peers. I am surprised to see there’s not more of a split between Power and Hughes with the draft experts.
Speaking of experts:
Josh Tessler (smahtscouting.com):
Hughes is most known for his skating. Almost every game that I tune in to, the first comment that I hear from the play by play and color guys is how dominant Hughes’ stride is. The young defenseman has a silky smooth stride and possesses elite edges. I know that “silky smooth” can be overused quite a bit in scouting reports, but Hughes does have a silky smooth stride. Every glide is well-timed. The extension is not too long and the recovery is exactly where you want it.
Peter Baracchini (thehockeywriters.com):
When the puck is on his stick, he has great control and his size allows him to protect the puck extremely well, making entries very easy for him. He has great hands that allow him to weave and stick handle without any issues in high traffic areas. He’s very crisp with his passing and puck movement as he’s able to move the play quickly and find his teammates effectively. In addition, he’s very efficient at stretching the play to make a long breakout pass from his own end for a quick counter attack.
The Sabres coaching search seems to be dragging on and on into the month of May, but if you're wondering if this is the longest the Sabres have operated with an interim coach at the helm, it’s not even close. Some may have forgotten that when Ted Nolan returned to coach the Sabres for a second time on November 13, 2013, following the firing of Ron Rolston, Nolan did so with the title of “Interim Head Coach.” Nolan owned that title until March 31, 2014, when then-general-manager Tim Murray gave Nolan a 3-year contract to stay in Buffalo as head coach. For those counting at home, that’s 138 days. We are a mere 84 days into the interim tenure of Don Granato.
If you’re looking for a comparison in terms of a firing at the end of the year and a new hiring of a coach: former General Manager Jason Botterill took about 6 weeks to hire Ralph Krueger following Phil Housley’s dismissal at the end of the 2018-2019 season. We are about a month past the end of the season so this could drag on a little while longer yet as Kevyn Adams has repeatedly said he has no interest in rushing the process.
It is highly interesting that the Sabres interviewed Zurich Lions Head Coach Rikard Grönborg recently, as reported by Darren Dreger. Grönborg has been in the coaching game for over 25 years and was the head coach of the Swedish Men’s National Team at the time of Ralph Krueger’s hiring. Posted below is a link to the the interview Grönborg did with the WGR550 morning show back in 2019 when he was rumored to in the running for the Sabres vacant coaching position at that time as well. He has a lot great stuff to say about using players in a way to maximize their strengths. It’s not fair to lay all of the blame for the Sabres failings the past two years on Ralph Krueger, but it certainly makes you wonder how things could have been different if they had hired Grönborg instead.
Here's the interview: