April 10, 2021

VERSUS: Brandt Clarke & Luke Hughes

Talk to ten different scouts about the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft and they may all have different players atop their rankings.

There is no draft in recent memory that comes close to matching the parity among the best players in this year’s edition. Luke Hughes and Brandt Clarke are two defensemen who can each make a case for being worthy of the first-overall selection. They are both players who can make a large offensive impact from the blue line and look to have bright NHL futures ahead of them. 

We’re currently experiencing a hockey season like never before and that uniqueness caused by the pandemic is going to have very real impacts on the draft and the process leading up to it. The ability to watch prospects play in person — a key step in any evaluation process — has been extremely limited and instead other evaluation methods are going to have to play a larger role. 

Among those are video scouting as well as the use of stats and analytics. All these tools are going to need to come together to build stronger pictures of the true abilities of every prospect. In the case of Hughes and Clarke, both of them have been able to find a way to get some games in even if they are in very different scenarios. 

Hughes has been playing with the United States National U18 Team as well as with the USNTDP Juniors. On the other hand, Clarke has been playing in the Slovakian Men’s league with HC Nove Zamky while on loan from the OHL’s Barrie Colts. The two different environments make it even more difficult to compare the players, but by putting together all the different puzzle pieces we can get a clear idea of the two players and how they match up against each other.

Comparing Strengths: Creating Offense From the Backend

At the moment in the NHL, we are entering a golden age for creative, offensive-minded defensemen. Last season as rookies, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar both made the transition to the NHL look very easy as they shattered many records and continued to shift people’s minds about what a defenceman can be. 

Clarke and Hughes — youngest brother of Quinn and budding superstar Jack Hughes — have some of these same elements as both are players that are gifted at creating offence from the backend. They are both strong skaters that use their feet to place themselves into positions where they can make plays with their hockey sense and vision. 

Clarke has made the transition to playing against men look impressively easy as he has used his strengths to remain effective.

“Clarke appears to have wasted no time adjusting to the culture shock of playing hockey in Slovakia’s pro league, because he was buzzing and looked good in this one,” FCHockey scout Derek Neumeier said after watching a January game. He continued by noting, “He plays with so much jump that he could appear any place on the ice at a moment’s notice.” 

His skating is something that stands out right away and that’s always an important skill in projecting players for the next level. He complements that skating with a strong hockey sense that allows him to see passing lanes, a combination that helps make him a breakout machine. 

Looking at data from InStat Hockey comparing the breakouts of the two players, we can see that Clarke was slightly more active getting the puck out of his zone at even strength. This is despite playing against tougher competition. 

Player Breakouts Per Game at Even Strength Breakouts Per Game at Even Strength (Pass) Breakouts Per Game at Even Strength (Stick Handling) 
Brandt Clarke 5 3 2
Luke Hughes 4.6 2.6 2

While this snapshot of data isn’t enough to make any sweeping conclusions, it does help show how Clarke’s skating and offensive awareness help make him a strong puck mover, even when playing against men. 

These areas of play are also strengths for Hughes and his stats are just as impressive with the only caveat being that he is playing weaker competition. FCHockey scout Josh Bell was impressed with his skating and also noted his effectiveness when playing in transition, saying “he shows a great deal of elusiveness and quick hands in transition play. He knows how to use his body to fool defenders.” 

Just as how his brother Quinn seems to be involved in every Vancouver Canucks’ goal, Hughes has put up points at every level. This season, he has 0.97 points per game, including 0.21 goals per game and 0.44 primary assists per game. He has a sneaky good shot that he unleashes from the point and when added to his elite playmaking skills, it results in plenty of points. 

Puck-moving defensemen are one of the most sought-after assets across the NHL. Both of these players fit that description and have proven themselves as players that can contribute offensively and help make a team run smoother. While Clarke’s success in a professional league against men may invoke a little more trust in scouts, it’s hard to slight Hughes for playing against his peers. Both players are very strong offensively and excellent skaters who can help moving forward in a variety of different ways. 

Comparing Weaknesses: Play Without the Puck

For defensemen who play a style such as Hughes and Clarke, their best defensive asset is the fact that they are more often than not in control of the puck. Each has their flaws defensively, that is typical among young defenders, and with time these will get smoothed out to a degree. 

Both players had a 56% Corsi at even strength which shows the ability to help their team drive play while they are on the ice. As a coach, you accept certain risks when you hand over the reins to a creative, offensive defenseman. More specifically, you accept the fact that in the process of making these great offensive plays they’re going to make mistakes that lead to chances the other way. Limiting these mistakes, both in quality and quantity, is the difference between a great offensive defenseman and a defensive liability. 

Both Hughes and Clarke can be prone to making mistakes in their own end, with the puck and without it.

“Gap control and risk assessment were also not perfect here, as there were some instances where he wasn’t in the right position or put himself into bad situations,” Neumeier said after watching Hughes play a game for the USA U18 squad. “In his own zone he looks a little more lost than you’d like to see.”

Similar things have been said about Clarke. FC Hockey scout Joseph Aleong noted that Clarke’s “aggressiveness can get him caught deep in the offensive zone at times” and Bell saw similar things as he said Clarke “does get caught often trying to make something happen offensively.” 

While at lower levels these mistakes may go unpunished, as these players transition to the professional ranks the opposition will turn those mistakes into goals. In addition, tougher competition will be more disruptive and force players like Clarke and Hughes to cough up the puck. We can see this reflected in the InStat data for the two players as Clarke hasn’t been quite as successful at Hughes as limiting turnovers. 

Player Giveaways Per Game (Even Strength) Deke % (Even Strength)  Puck Battle Won % (Even Strength) 
Brandt Clarke 6.0 74% 53%
Luke Hughes  4.3 87% 56%

Determining how much of this discrepancy can be attributed to their level of competition compared to their talent is the million-dollar question. While it’s impossible to know for sure, what we do know is that each is prone to their own lapses in judgement that will need to be ironed out before they can be fully relied upon in all situations. 

Final Thoughts

Both Hughes and Clarke are talented players who are creative moving forward and are built in the style of the ideal modern defensemen. They can jumpstart a team’s attack from the blue line with a crisp pass or by using their skating ability to jump into the rush. 

Because of their vastly different scenarios at the moment, it’s difficult to compare them to each other. Yet by looking at these analytics, we start to get a better idea of who each player is and what their potential might be. Clarke’s transition to a professional league has gone about as seamless as one could ask, yet Hughes has dominated against his peers as well. 

For teams looking for a defenseman at the top of the draft, both of these two players are going to be under heavy scrutiny as potential selections. They each offer tantalizing potential and are easy to picture roaming an NHL blue line for the next decade or more. Looking at this season, Clarke has more of a proven track record while Hughes has dominated to a larger extent. It’s going to be up to NHL teams to determine the potential from the youngest Hughes brother is enough to make up for Clarke’s professional experience. 

Noah Strang is a student at McGill University as well as a freelance sports journalist. You can read his words at a number of different outlets including FCHockey, Nucks Misconduct, Canucks Army, and Silver and Black Today. Follow Noah on Twitter to stay up to date with his work and feel free to reach out to discuss anything sports.


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