The Draft Analyst: Riley Hughes vs. Harvard (Beanpot SF)
It’s easy to lose track of the development of players within a specific draft class when all 10 picks remain with the organization. Especially if you were nearly the last player selected. Right wing Riley Hughes — the 216th overall pick in 2018 — is one of those 10 prospects chosen that year by the Rangers, and on Monday he played the biggest game of his young career when his two-time defending champion Northeastern Huskies beat Harvard 3-1 in the semifinals of the 68th annual Beanpot Tournament.
Last season, the Westwood, Mass. native was a top-line player for the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League, flanking 2019 first-round pick and league MVP Alex Newhook. Playing alongside a superior playmaker of Newhook’s caliber in certainly helped Hughes in the statistical department (58 points in 53 games), but Canadian Junior “A” hockey is a significant notch below the competition he would have faced in major junior or college. Nonetheless, the Rangers had to have been happy with Hughes putting up gaudy numbers and it seemed that fans considered him a shrewd pick for the bottom of the last round.
Things have gone a bit differently for Hughes since joining the Huskies. His freshman season at Northeastern from a statistical standpoint (1 goal in 23 games heading into Monday’s action) has been anything but successful. Yes, Hughes is a newcomer who plays for a nationally-ranked team with senior leadership. His team also has to deal with the pressure of repeating as champions of both the Beanpot and Hockey East, thus putting ice time and favorable zone starts at a premium. Still, it’s perfectly normal for the box-score observer to consider Hughes’s lack of production in college somewhat disappointing, even after expectations for a nearly-undrafted player low to begin with. The good news is that he has at least three more seasons to marinate in college before the Rangers need to make a decision from a contractual standpoint. Additionally, Hughes has shown elements of a player with a fair chance to contribute at higher levels beyond scoring; something that became quite apparent on Monday night.
For starters, Hughes was active on the puck in all three periods and displayed quick feet and turning ability when reacting to changes of direction. He was engaged in multiple board battles and on several occasions was able to use his long reach and a quick stick to break up plays, even at the end of a long shift. He also had two shots on goal and had a good look from the slot but whistled a shot over the net.
His first assist of his NCAA career was more the result of a broken play than a pure set-up or clean pass, but it’s critical to note that he and his linemates combined for clutch goal late in a period that proved to be the eventual game winner. A pass from the point intended for Hughes deflected off his stick before poking it towards the near corner, where Grant Jozefek corralled it and centered to Brendan van Riemsdyk for a tip-in that broke a 1-1 tie. Regardless of how Hughes got on the scoresheet, an assist is an assist, and Hughes will have a nice story to tell considering the scope and scale of the event he participated in.
The biggest takeaway, however, was not the assist. It was the fact that head coach Jim Madigan entrusted a freshman like Hughes with key late-close situations in the third period of a Beanpot semifinal while his team held to a one-goal lead. The Huskies were hemmed in their zone for long stretches of the final stanza, but Hughes did his part to pressure the points, get in the way of shots, and keep most of Harvard’s play to the outside. For someone with the reputation of being a scoring winger, Hughes seemed to know exactly where he needed to be and put forth a strong effort on the backcheck.
What does this all mean? It means that a freshman most of us earmarked as a four-year player at Northeastern to begin with already has earned the trust and confidence of his coach without putting much of a dent in the scoresheet. It might take a graduation or two for Hughes to see an increased role for next year, but Monday night was yet another prime example of the eye test debunking the most basic of individual stats. Hughes had a strong game against a desperate Harvard team and his development appears to be headed in the right direction.