PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Two years ago, Auston Matthews became the seventh American-born player to be taken first over all in the N.H.L. draft.
The question of who will be the next one may already have an answer: a skinny 16-year-old named Jack Hughes.
Hughes, a native of Orlando, Fla., who grew up in the Toronto area in an accomplished hockey family, will not be eligible for the N.H.L. draft until 2019. But he has emerged as such a star for U.S.A. Hockey’s National Team Development Program that pro and college scouts are penciling in the left-shooting center as the odds-on favorite for the top spot 14 months from now.
“I have not seen a better player available for the 2019 draft,” said Craig Button, a former general manager of the Calgary Flames and now an analyst on the NHL Network. “He’s got the skill, he’s got the drive. He’s lights out. If there’s a better player available for 2019, just tell me where he is, because I’ll take a buggy, a bicycle, a plane, if there’s someone out there better than Jack Hughes.”
The National Team Development Program has produced N.H.L. stars including Matthews, Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. Yet Hughes, who is nearing the end of his first of two years in the program, seems poised to destroy all of their scoring marks in the program. His 99 points so far this season are already the fourth highest single-season total since the program began in 1996. At his current pace he could break Matthews’s record of 117, which he set in his second season when he was 17.
In the United States Hockey League, the junior circuit where the N.T.D.P. team plays, Hughes faced off against teams of 18- to 20-year-olds, yet averaged two points a game, the best mark in the league by far. He played only 27 of the 60 games and finished with 21 goals and 33 assists.
“The numbers he’s putting up this year and making it look easy — it only tells you that the ceiling is so high,” said Keith Tkachuk, the former N.H.L. great who is a scout for the St. Louis Blues.
In February, when the N.T.D.P. played in a tournament with the best under-18 players from Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic, Hughes was the youngest player on the ice, and probably one of the two or three best.
“He dominated,” Tkachuk said. “I walked out of the building shaking my head.”
Hughes also is the youngest player on the United States team at the under-18 men’s world championship, which begins Thursday in Russia.
At 5-foot-10 and 157 pounds, Hughes is not much of a physical presence yet, but he is a dynamic skater who cuts and turns at speed, and sees plays and passing possibilities before anyone else. He’s often described as a cross between Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes and Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star who was the No. 1 draft pick in 2007.
Nick Fohr, an assistant coach at N.T.D.P., recalled an exhibition game in December against the University of North Dakota, a top Division I team with several players six and seven years older than Hughes.
“He went through like three guys and whipped a pass to one of his linemates for a scoring chance, and all the guys on the bench were looking at each other like, ‘How did he do that?’” Fohr said.
Hughes has the pedigree to become an elite hockey player. His father, Jim, played at Providence College, and his mother, Ellen, skated for the University of New Hampshire. His uncle Marty starred at Boston College.
And Jack Hughes might not even be the best player in the family right now. His older brother, Quinn, also an N.T.D.P. alum, was a standout freshman at Michigan, which reached the Frozen Four this season. Known for his fluid skating and playmaking ability, Quinn, 18, is expected to be a first-round pick in the N.H.L. draft in June, and could be among the first 10 players selected.
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A younger brother, Luke, plays on a high-level travel team and could land at N.T.D.P. in a few years, too.
“We’re really competitive with each other in whatever it is — basketball, Ping-Pong,” Jack Hughes said of his brothers. “But they’re like my two best friends.”
The family lived in Toronto while Jim Hughes was a scout for the Maple Leafs. Ellen taught the boys to skate. They spent hours twirling around on outdoor rinks in winter and honed their shooting skills in their basement.
“We had a goal down there and the posts were so dented,” Jack Hughes said, laughing. “The crossbar was like flattened. There were holes all over the wall. It was pretty spectacular.”
Hughes and his parents are trying to shut out the speculation about his No. 1 pick potential.
“It’s all talk right now,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen for a while. I just love going to the rink. We’re here like five hours a day. It might seem like a grind, but it’s just a blast for me.”
Hughes is undecided about where he will play after he is done with the National Team Development Program in 2019. He is considering college hockey and the junior ranks in Canada. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. He’s just a kid,” said Jim Hughes, who now works for Pat Brisson, the top agent whose clients include Matthews, now a Maple Leafs star, and other N.H.L. players.
One other possibility is a year of pro hockey in Switzerland, where Matthews played, on Brisson’s advice, before being drafted. Going directly to the N.H.L. after the 2019 draft could be a stretch unless Jack Hughes adds plenty of pounds and bulk over the next 18 months.
For now, the immediate challenge is representing the United States at the under-18 world championship. The American team has won the tournament seven of the last nine years, and expectations are high again.
The American roster includes at least four players who are possible first-round picks this year, and the coaches are confident the rest of the world will have their hands full just trying to contain Hughes.
“Jack does things in games that are mesmerizing,” said John Wroblewski, coach of the N.T.D.P.’s under-17 squad. “He’s a savant.”