The 2021 NHL Draft is already being touted as one of the most unique drafts the National Hockey League has ever seen.
This past season unfortunately saw a number of prospects eligible for this year's draft not getting an opportunity to play a full season of hockey due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, some prospects were forced to find other leagues to play in, while other players could not find suitable ice-time over the course of the year.
Junior leagues like the Canadian Hockey League were among the harder hit leagues this year due to COVID-19, mainly because of local and government restrictions. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was able to get a full season in, while the Western Hockey League was only able to get in a small number of games. However, the Ontario Hockey League did not even get a chance to play this season after being forced to push back the start of the year multiple times.
Luckily for some prospects, they were able to get in a full season or work, or at least a majority of their 2020-21 campaigns despite some minor disruptions over the course of the year. As a result, those players were able to gain a leg-up on the rest of the draft class, allowing them to get plenty of attention from scouts and teams around the NHL.
The 2021 draft will not feature a "clear cut" No. 1 prospect this year for the first time in a while, but it will feature a number of prospects near the top of the board with potential to be high-caliber players at the NHL level. This year's group will feature a strong defensive presence near the top, while the forward group has a few names that stand out above the rest of the pack.
There have been a number of famous families to leave their mark in hockey over the last several years in the NHL. Families like the Howes, the Hulls, the Sutters, the Stastnys and the Staals have all had multiple members extending multiple decades finding different levels of success at the NHL level.
The latest family in the NHL to come into the spotlight is the Hughes family, featuring Quinn, Jack and Luke Hughes.
Quinn, 21, was the seventh overall pick of the Vancouver Canucks in the 2018 NHL Draft. The defenseman just completed his second full season in the NHL, putting up 11 goals and 86 assists for 97 points in 129 career games.
Jack, 20, ended up going as the first overall pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to the New Jersey Devils after lighting up the U.S. National Team Development Program primarily as a 17-year-old.
Now enter the youngest of the Hughes brothers, Luke, who is also likely to go off the board as a top-10 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. If this happens to be the case come the first round of the draft on July 23, it would mark the first time in NHL history where three brothers were selected in the top-10 of the annual entry draft.
Like his brothers, Luke Hughes has become a staple of the USNTDP in Plymouth, Michigan, spending the last two seasons with the program. With the Under-17 Team, Hughes was able to score seven goals and add 21 assists for 28 points in 48 games played. This past season as part of the Under-18 Team, Hughes produced well with six goals and 28 assists for 34 points in 38 games.
Over the course of two seasons playing with the USNTDP in the United States Hockey league, Hughes thrived on the blue line with eight goals and 20 assists for 28 points in 46 combined games.
Unfortunately for Hughes, his 2020-21 season was cut short due to a lacerated tendon in his foot that required surgery. Not only did he miss the final part of the season, but he also missed out on a chance to compete for a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF Under-18 World Championship a few weeks back in Frisco, Texas.
However, Hughes has been able to showcase his skill sets enough over the past couple of years to place himself in the conversation as one of the top defensive prospects in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Here is what makes Hughes stand out as one of the top prospects of this year's draft class:
Hughes is, arguably, the best skater heading into the 2021 NHL Draft class, and it should come as no surprise .The 18-year-old comes from a family of gifted skaters, and his older brother Quinn is regarded as one of the best young skating defensemen in the NHL.
Standing in at 6-foot-2 and 176 pounds, Hughes has a long and powerful stride that allows him to generate good speed while skating on the rush. He may not possess the same blazing speed, at times, as Quinn, Luke can still skate with the rest of them with his smooth and controlled game on the blue line.
Where Hughes is at his best with his skating is on his edges, where he instantly becomes a threat with the puck at both ends of the ice. His ability to turn in the tight corners or on a dime in open ice allows him to get an extra step on the opposition.
Hughes' top-level skating skills also allow him to be a very good transitional player. His speed, combined with his vision, allows him to get from one end to the other in no time, while his edge work helps him be quick and agile, allowing for the potential of end-to-end rushes.
With the puck, Hughes has a very effective stutter move that can freeze anyone trying to defend him. It gives him an element of deception as he either looks to take a shot or set up a teammate for a scoring chance.
In terms of his skating on the defensive, Hughes is good at sticking with the play and rarely puts himself in a position that puts him out of the play. He's not afraid to be aggressive and come at an opposing player, nor is he afraid to stick with a player and stick with them stride-for-stride.
Like his older brothers, Hughes is a very effective passer whether it's on the fly from end-to-end, or if he's trying to get something set up in the offensive zone. He's accurate and firm with his passes, while smart and decisive on where he wants to get the puck.
Meanwhile, his vision allows him to see the ice very well to consistently make those passes. Hughes can also play on both the left and right side of the blue line, which is mainly a testament to his skating and passing abilities.
While Hughes possesses a decent shot already, there is so much more potential for him to add to his repertoire.
Hughes can utilize his vision to see the open shooting lanes to the net from the blue line, but he definitely can add some more zip to his wrist shots from the point. Meanwhile, Hughes has a decent slap shot that he's been able to score with from time-to-time, but once he grows a little bit more into his frame, that shot should only improve more.
Unlike his older brothers (Quinn at 5-foot-10 and Jack at 5-foot-11), Hughes was blessed with the size gene with his 6-foot-2 frame. While he weighs in at just 176 pounds, Hughes has already shown a willingness to be engaging physically at his level of play.
As he continues to climb the ranks of hockey, Hughes will need to fill out his frame if he wants to become a more effective two-way presence on the blue line. While the name of his game is primarily offense, there will be teams that like his physical potential and will try to take advantage.
While it's been mentioned that Hughes was primarily an offensive force while playing at the USNTDP, he certainly has the potential to build into an effective presence in the defensive end. Hughes is aggressive with his stick work in his own end, and is more than willing to get engaged in front of the net in a positioning battle.
With Hughes gearing up to head to college, the challenges are only going to get tougher as the competition intensifies. If Hughes can make the proper adjustments and build some consistencies in his own zone, his outlook as a two-way defender will look that much better.
After the 2021 NHL Draft, Hughes will be joining the University of Michigan that already features a number of high-profile talents eligible for this year's draft in Owen Power, Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson. He also follows in the footsteps of his older brother Quinn, who went to Michigan for two seasons before making the jump to the NHL.
What's also noticeable about Hughes is he enters the 2021 NHL Draft as one of the youngest players of his class. He will not turn 18-years-old until Sept. 9, which is only a few days ahead of making him eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft.
There should be no rush from any NHL team to get Hughes to the pros any time soon. It will be very beneficial for Hughes to get in, at least, a year or two at Michigan, and then just maybe he will be ready to make the next jump to the NHL.
Hughes has plenty of time to continue to build upon his overall game and work his way to becoming a potential top-pairing defenseman in the NHL.