College hockey coaches are always walking a fine line during news conferences. Especially during the postseason, when there is a strong chance they are willing to speak in generalities, afraid of saying too much.
Unless they are being asked about Michigan sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes.
“Honestly? He probably doesn’t need to be in college this year,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “He could already be in the NHL. I’m glad he did play because I had him as my captain for the World Juniors. As good a player as he is, I think he’s a better person. He’s a phenomenal athlete, a phenomenal person and he’s got that elusiveness you can’t teach. You can’t teach what he does. “
Yes, a college coach said this. Scratch that. A college coach said this about an opposing player more than a week before the Frozen Four in a sport in which there are some coaches who will only answer questions about their own players.
People have thoughts on Hughes, whom the New Jersey Devils drafted fourth overall in 2021, with the general consensus being he’s really good at hockey.
Maybe the more appropriate question: Who’s to say Hughes is not there already?
“I think he’s in that class of player for sure,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Those names that are mentioned — now, where will he end up? We don’t know. But we believe we have a very high caliber player. When you look at the history of these types of players, two years did not hurt Quinn. It didn’t hurt Werenski or McAvoy. It did not hurt to go back for your sophomore year and continue the growth of your game.”
Hughes will sign with New Jersey once Michigan’s season has ended (Michigan plays Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four on April 6 at 8:30 on ESPN2), Fitzgerald has said. And when that happens, Hughes will become the latest in a growing trend of defensemen who are first-round draft picks and leave college after two seasons.
This year, it welcomed Luke Hughes along with Corson Ceulemans, who left Wisconsin after two seasons to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“He beats people one-on-one at the offensive blue line,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said of Hughes. “A lot of coaches wouldn’t like this kind of stuff. With these young prospects, it’s like, ‘Ah, it works in college, but will it work in the NHL?’ Talking to both Quinn and Zach about Luke, I think they believe it’s going to work at the NHL level.”
Look at what the members of that club have achieved in a short time. They’ve had varying degrees of success, ranging from being instant contributors in a top-four role to making the All-Star Game to winning individual accolades such as the Norris Trophy, the award that goes to the NHL’s best defenseman.
How did hockey arrive at a point in which two years in college suddenly became the threshold for NHL-bound first-round defensemen?
“I don’t know if it is a black-and-white threshold,” said NHL agent Allain Roy, who represents Ceulemans. “As an agent, the conversation we have with our players is about development and it is when do you feel you have plateaued? Some guys, it’s a year or two years or three years, or some need all four.”
ANY DISCUSSION AROUND trends typically leads to questions regarding precedents. The NHL has seen first-round college defensemen leave after two seasons before. But this cycle is different in its consistency compared to previous groups.
From 2002 to 2008, there were 17 college-bound defensemen drafted in the first round. Only two of them — Erik Johnson and Ryan Suter — left school after one year and immediately played in the NHL. Five stayed for two years, nine stayed for three years and one left school after a season to play in the CHL.
Between 2009 and 2014, there were only five college-bound defensemen drafted in the first round, with four of them coming in one draft class. The 2012 draft produced Jacob Trouba, Mike Matheson, Jordan Schmaltz and Brady Skjei. Trouba left college after one season while the rest stayed in school through their junior years.
Werenski, who was a first-round pick in 2015, became the first defenseman of this current cycle to take the two-year path and the first since 2005 to leave after their sophomore season. Since then, all but three of the first-round college-bound defensemen who were drafted have left school after two seasons.
In explaining how the calculus changed, agent Scott Bartlett, whose family firm represents Makar and Sanderson, states a familiar refrain: Skill is more vital now than ever before.
“I’ll never forget talking to our older pros like Brian Gionta and Ryan Callahan who were out skating in our summer camp,” Bartlett said. “We had Cale Makar, Clayton Keller, Alex Tuch, J.T. Miller out there and they were like, ‘Holy s—! I don’t know how these kids got so good!’ The way kids have been trained now, it’s just the science of the sport.”
Bartlett said going to college, like playing at any level, is about evaluating one’s ability over time. He said a defenseman’s first season allows them to live in that space between finding success while also adjusting to the college game. Bartlett said the sophomore season is about seeing if that same defenseman can find the next level of “dominance and mastery” that can offer more insight into whether a player is ready for the NHL or is better off as a junior in college.
McAvoy, Sanderson and York, who each spoke with ESPN, are examples of the outline Bartlett provided. They went from promising freshmen to sophomores who were among the best in the nation — all three were all-conference selections who were also named All-Americans before turning pro.
McAvoy, who played at Boston University (2015-17), was the second defenseman of the group, after Werenski, to leave following their sophomore season. The Boston Bruins star said it was BU coach David Quinn, now the head coach of the San Jose Sharks, who told him he was ready to leave school. McAvoy said he still felt like it was a gamble to leave because he scored only 26 points as a sophomore after scoring 25 as a freshman.
“I didn’t envision the success that I have [had],” McAvoy said. “I thought, ‘You know what? There’s an opportunity for me to go and I can work my way up in Providence. I feel I’d rather start now playing pro than coming back one more year and then going.’ So that is where I landed. I didn’t come play [in the NHL] right out of college. I didn’t have these things guaranteed to me.
“I essentially kind of lucked into the opportunity I got and then I completely surprised myself. I don’t think you know you’re ready until you are.”
McAvoy played four AHL games before the Bruins called him up because they had four defensemen sustain injuries. It paved the way for McAvoy to join the Bruins in the playoffs where he emerged after finishing with three points in six games while averaging 26:11 in ice time, a workload usually reserved for more experienced defensemen.
York, who starred at Michigan, said he began realizing it was time to move on because he felt he was “almost being too lackadaisical,” which meant he knew he could handle the demands of the college game — something the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman said he heard from scouts.
Since coming to the NHL, York has gone back and forth between the AHL and NHL over the last two seasons. He’s scored two goals and has 19 points in 49 games with the Flyers this season while having three goals and 13 points in 20 games with their AHL affiliate.
Sanderson, who played at the University of North Dakota, is in his first season with the Ottawa Senators. He said he knew he wanted to play two years in college for a couple of reasons. Being a freshman meant there were older players ahead of him who occupied roles Sanderson felt he needed to fill to maximize his development.
“I did look at guys like McAvoy, Werenski and Makar — guys I like to model my game after,” Sanderson said. “They stayed two years and I felt like I needed a little more development after my first year, so I didn’t want to rush anything.”
One sentiment all three shared was that two years may not be the best path for everyone.
“Each player is different and that’s something you have to consider,” York said. “Just because some of us go two years and are done doesn’t mean that’s the best thing for you. I was able to have some long conversations with my agent and my coaches and decided to move on.”
GMs ARE ALWAYS preaching patience. That includes Fitzgerald. But how hard was it for Fitzgerald and the Devils to be patient with Hughes after his freshman season?
Hughes had a dominant freshman season with 17 goals and 39 points in 41 games en route to becoming the first defenseman to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, an honor he shared with Ohio State goaltender Jakub Dobeš.
Who wouldn’t want to add a 6-foot-2 offensively gifted defenseman who scored more goals and had more points in his freshman campaign than Werenski, McAvoy, Quinn Hughes, Makar, Miller, York, Power and Sanderson had in their first seasons?
And remember: Werenski, Quinn Hughes, York and Power also played at Michigan.
“We know what his offensive instincts are and how dynamic he is when he swings around the net and comes up the ice or he walks the blue line and makes defenders fall over,” Fitzgerald said. “The areas we asked him and Michigan’s coaching staff through our development staff to continually push was the play away from the puck. How do you box out at the net front? Taking sticks, gapping up, not watching pucks and playing with more urgency away from the puck.”
Narauto, who was an assistant during Hughes’ freshman season, said the growth Hughes has shown in his sophomore season has allowed him to have “more of a plan” when it comes to reading cues and making decisions.
“He’s always been a good defender,” Narauto said. “I think he’s becoming an elite defender and using his physical attributes like his skating just to close time and space and kill plays as quickly as possible.”
Fitzgerald said the Devils wanted to see how Hughes could grow in other areas. For example, he became an alternate captain as a sophomore. They wanted to know how Hughes would be able to handle the demands of being a leader in a dressing room.
They also wanted to see how he could perform in some of the most high-leverage situations in Michigan’s chase for what would be a record-setting 10th national championship. The Wolverines face Quinnipiac in the national semifinals Thursday night in Tampa, Florida (8:30 ET on ESPN2/ESPN+).
“We wanted him to continue his development and help develop this kid into the player we want him to be,” Fitzgerald said. “The sky’s the limit for Luke. It’s NHL caliber right now. The decision making is going to get tighter. But he’s not going to learn that at Michigan or anywhere else to be honest with you.”
As for how quickly Hughes could enter the Devils’ lineup? Fitzgerald said that remains to be seen.
That’s no slight against Hughes. It’s just that the Devils are really good defensively. As in, they have one of the best defensive structures in the NHL. Natural Stat Trick’s metrics reinforce what makes the Devils’ blue line so good. In terms of 5-on-5 sequences, they are in the top five in shots allowed per 60 minutes, scoring chances allowed per 60 and high-danger chances allowed per 60, and are seventh in high-danger goals allowed per 60.
Devils coach Lindy Ruff has consistently relied upon his six defensemen — Ryan Graves, Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and Brenden Smith — to create a unit that works in tandem with their forwards to make them one of the NHL’s more complete teams. Plus, Kevin Bahl has played 35 games as a seventh defenseman.
Furthermore, the Devils are going to be playing for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. And by the time Hughes and Michigan are done, the Devils may have only two regular-season games left.
These are the challenges that come with adding one of the best defensive prospects in hockey to one of the best defensive teams in hockey.
“Our coaches have been working with these players the last seven months,” Fitzgerald said. “This is the team that got us to where we are. Do I not want to put in a player that can help us achieve our goal? I just don’t know. Charlie McAvoy played because of injuries. It was not the plan, but it turned out awesome. I don’t know what that looks like.”
Of course an injury, as Fitzgerald alluded to, changes the dynamic. He said the Devils intentionally did not add any defensive reinforcements at the trade deadline because they knew Hughes would be available if needed.
That is another reason the Devils want Hughes around the team. They want him practicing so he can learn the system, start building relationships with his teammates — particularly those he will be living with when he comes to New Jersey — and adapt to the NHL so he is ready when the time comes.
“What are our expectations? We hope he wins a national championship and turns pro,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s coming into our group and seeing the things we value, how we want our D to play, our system, how we’re a quick-attack team and he will fit in seamlessly that way. … That is the plan right now. When you draft a player, two years is probably the limit if that’s how things go. But a third year is OK if he’s not quite ready.
“That’s not the case at all with Luke.”