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Understandably, John Wroblewski had initial doubts.

Not necessarily about the player as much as the situation. Wroblewski was coaching the 2016-17 U.S. national U-18 team when the little brother of star defenseman Quinn Hughes tagged along for a skate.

That little brother was Jack Hughes and Wroblewski had yet to see him play.

"You sort of ask the questions, OK, well how often do you have a 15-year-old skating with a U-18 team and how good is the kid?" Wroblewski said.

The verdict?

"The answer is he's pretty good, he's pretty good," Wroblewski said with a laugh last Wednesday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "We've got to keep an eye on him. You get him out there and instantaneously he fits in and exceeds and then also enamors you — all three of these observationalist thought processes come to your senses in that hour and a half skate of this tiny, little kid who somehow comes out and impresses you so much within that short period of time.

"Not only with his skill level, but kind of how some of the great players out there, how they can make the game slow down or speed up at their will. It's tough to describe unless you've been around him."

Wroblewski has been around him a bunch, coaching Hughes for the second straight season in the U.S. national team development program. 

Unequivocally, he now knows all about the 17-year-old, a darting and dynamic center whose playmaking ability can cause motion sickness for opponents.

 

Before the start of 2018-19, Hughes was hardly a blip on the Flyers' radar. Not with the team signing James van Riemsdyk to bolster an experienced roster and take its biggest step since the 2011-12 season. The NHL draft was an afterthought.

Oh, how things have changed.

The Flyers entered the All-Star break at 19-23-6 and with more points (44) than only two other NHL teams — the Devils (43) and Senators (43). A startling shake-up within the front office and coaching staff became the messy byproduct of another slow start, this one the most impactful of them all.

Suddenly but inevitably, Hughes' name has permeated the fan base. He is widely considered the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2019 NHL draft.

And Flyers fans are astutely aware. 

The golden spot is in sight.


(AP Images)

Similar to any NHL draft, the climb of the top overall pick will be debated. Many will line Hughes up against past No. 1 selections — from Patrick Kane (2007) to Connor McDavid (2015) and fellow USNTDP product Auston Matthews (2016).

While Hughes is only 5-foot-10, 168 pounds and turns 18 just a month before the draft, Wroblewski sees him developing into a player of his own mold.

My belief is that he'll be in the NHL next year and there's really not a comparable. You're starting to see more and more of the hybrid type of player — guys that play with speed and skill. One of Jack's unique traits is that even though there are questions out there in regards to his size, he's a true center iceman and he will play in the middle and he will figure out a way to make it work. 

You throw him into the blender with wingers like Kane and [Johnny] Gaudreau, but then you have to put him in the middle of the ice, so he's got that speed like McDavid. He doesn't have McDavid's size, but he's got things that I think McDavid would be envious of, as well. 

There's a component here that I think has yet to be realized. Like his brother Quinn, young kids are going to look at him and want to be him as a player, sort of revolutionize the position that a quote, unquote undersized centerman can persevere and make it to be a superstar in the National Hockey League — because there's not a ton of them that have done that.

Wroblewski calls Hughes "manicured."

It's an excellent way to describe him. Hughes doesn't sound like a 17-year-old. He's well-spoken because he's well-groomed, unfazed by the hype of being the top-ranked 2019 draft prospect.

 

He credits much of his maturity and preparation to his "great support system," featuring his family and coaches.

His father Jim Hughes, mother Ellen Weinberg-Hughes and uncle Marty Hughes all played Division I hockey. His older brother Quinn was drafted seventh overall by the Canucks last summer and plays at Michigan, while his younger brother Luke is 15 years old and considered an up-and-coming talent.

"We've all kind of been through the ringer already," Hughes said last Tuesday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "I'm thankful to have them around me."

Wroblewski said the scouting presence this season for the Hughes-led U-18 team has been "overwhelming," but in a good sense.

"It's been nonstop, it's been relentless," Wroblewski said. "The scouting community — reporters doing articles or scouting prospects, [people] that do this for a living, and of course the NHL scouts — is all trying to decipher where do these guys fall in the pick of the litter. And I'll tell you, right behind Jack on this team, there's a slew of other players that are going to be right there with him in the National Hockey League."

For Hughes, the eyes on him are at an all-time high with the draft a little less than five months away.

Is he keen to the amplified attention?

"No, I've been dealing with that since I was 14, 15 years old," Hughes said. "A scout is pretty much another person in the building. All I have to do is play my game and have fun."

Like Wroblewski said, Hughes is manicured.

He gives you guys the clichés at times, but there's a little bit of twist to his cliché answers. There's insight there, it's not like he's just throwing out these random phrases. He's got practice at it, but he's not just going through the motions when he talks to the media, which gives me a lot of hope that he could be at that ultimate ambassador to the game. Not just a guy that goes through and plays excellent hockey and is a focal point, but somebody who is also attractive to the media. 

At the same time, when the cameras are away and he's not on the spotlight, he's a kid. He's a high school kid who is goofy and funny in the back of the bus — he's got personality, he's got swagger, he has a lot of the intangibles.


(AP Images)

There wasn't just one play or game that convinced Wroblewski.

"I don't think moments capture excellence," he said, "particularly with a kid that's going to go No. 1 overall in the draft."

 

The World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in November 2017 was when Wroblewski really saw it. The U.S. had taken home gold by beating Canada, 6-4, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

Hughes led the field with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in six games.

"He just completely dominated the event — and then as the octane and the temperature rose in the tournament, he continued to surpass expectations and continued to dominate and find another level," Wroblewski said. "In a hostile environment — he was a kid who grew up a bit in Toronto wearing the American sweater, and all of a sudden he's thrust into this environment; it was such a pro-Canadian environment, and he allows himself to block out all the X-factors and just concentrate on dominating the game at hand. 

"That to me was kind of the time where I was like, 'This kid is No. 1.' I always had that throughout the fall, but from there on, it was like, 'This is the kid that's going No. 1 next year.'"

Hughes strives to be the entire package.

That doesn't mean he's there yet. However, the multifaceted, no-holes-in-your-game mindset is what pushes him.

"As a hockey player, everything you do you want to improve," Hughes said. "You see the best players in the world working on their game, year in and year out. For me, I focus on everything, but some of the things I focus on the most are my faceoffs and my shot. Those are two things that need to be really good to be a good player."

What about his strengths?

I play a new brand of hockey — speed and skill, the way the game is now.

I'm kind of an open book. There are a lot of great players out there and something that they all have in common is that they're Swiss Army knives. They can do everything really well. I feel like my game is what my game is, but I'm working on other parts of my game and trying to become the best at everything that I do.

I'm going to show up to the rink to compete and have fun.

In 28 games this season as the captain of the U.S. national U-18 team, Hughes has 56 points on 13 goals and 43 assists. In 60 combined games last season between the U-17 and U-18 teams, Hughes had 116 points on 40 goals and 76 assists.

"He's a workhorse on and off the ice," Wroblewski said. "He'll do whatever it takes. When he finds a deficiency in his game, or if there's something not at — if you want to scale things out of five — if there's something that's not at a five, he'll start working right away at getting to that number. 

"Last year, it was his shot. He did not have a very good shot. It was still good, but it wasn't elite. He went at it hard this summer, his one-timer, his release, everything else has improved so much in that regard. And that's something that I think he'll continue to do."

 


(AP Images)

The Twitter hashtag has grown in popularity for any struggling team near the NHL basement and in the ballpark of the 2019 draft's first overall slot.

#LoseForHughes.

Hughes isn't oblivious to the slogan in which many Flyers fans have adopted.

"The first time I heard it was actually my OHL draft year (2016-17)," he said with a laugh. "It's not new to me, but every time I see it, it's pretty funny and I get a little chuckle out of it."

How hard the Flyers charge after the All-Star break will determine their chances for Hughes, while the NHL draft lottery results will have the final say.

Whichever team does land Hughes, its fans will be on board with his message.

"I'd tell them I hope to give them a lot of good years," Hughes said. "That's what every player wants — they want to go to a city that's hungry to win and a city that's a lot of fun. That's really what I'd be excited about — have fun with the city and playing hockey for the community and the city, for however long I'm there."

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