Like the stars on the American flag, Auston Matthews and Jack Hughes shine brightly as they continue to wreak havoc on their opposition.
Both took similar paths to find NHL success, putting up otherworldly numbers for the USNTDP (US National Team Development Program) and subsequently being drafted first overall. Each player has acclimated to the league in different ways, but they both continue to establish themselves as arguably the best US-born talent currently in the league. With both of them still so young, a conversation seems to be emerging as to who is better.
Let’s revisit their paths to stardom:
Juniors – Auston Matthews
Matthews started with the USNTDP when he was 16 years old, quickly finding success. He was producing around a point-per-game (P/G) which is exceptional in itself at such a young age. But in his age 17 season, for the U18s, he exploded for a total of 117 points – including 55 goals – in 60 games and started to establish himself as a frontrunner to be picked first.
He then took an extremely unconventional route in his age-18 season, which would be his last before draft-eligibility. He decided to head to Zurich, Switzerland, and join the ZSC Lions of the National League (NLA), playing against almost exclusively grown men. He finished second on the team in scoring with 46 points in 36 games. He also had the highest points-per-games played (P/GP) mark on the entire team (min. 20 GP) and the second-highest in the entire league. The then 18-year-old was doing things virtually nobody had before.
He supplemented that with 11 points in seven games for the Americans at the IIHF World Junior Championships (WJC). He then joined the United States squad in May for the Men’s World Championships, where he tied Dylan Larkin for the team lead with nine points. His six goals were tied with Artemi Panarin and Taylor Hall for third in the entire tournament. Simply put, he had proved everything he needed to and had done enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs to select him first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Juniors – Jack Hughes
Hughes started his age-16 season with the USNTDP, where he tore things up immediately, totaling 68 points in 36 games for the U18s. The following year, as a 17-year-old, he cemented his draft status as a clear frontrunner for first overall.
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Hughes posted 112 points in 50 games, a pace that somehow surpassed Matthews’ incredible Development Team season, albeit Matthews was about eight months younger. He also tore up the IIHF U18 World Championships, where he scored a whopping 20 points in only seven games. His grand total of 31 points in two showings at the tournament passed Alex Ovechkin for the most all-time.
However, Hughes did struggle a bit at both the World Junior Championships and the Men’s Worlds. He only had four points at the WJC – all assists, being held without a goal as the US fell to Finland in the gold medal game. He was visibly upset afterward.
Unlike Matthews, Hughes was unable to find success at the Men’s World Championships, which makes sense when you consider that it was really his first time playing against men. He only had three points (again, all assists) in seven games there. However, his overall resume was still enough that the New Jersey Devils confidently selected him first in the 2019 NHL Draft.
The junior advantage here goes to Matthews. While Hughes slightly outperformed him for the USNTDP, Matthews’ success against men – both at the World Championships and in Switzerland – set him up better to thrive immediately in the NHL.
Matthews’ Start in the NHL
Matthews found the most possible immediate success in the NHL, scoring four (!!) goals in his first career game: opening night against the Ottawa Senators. He finished with an incredible 40 goals for the Leafs on the season. He added 29 assists as well, totaling 69 points in his rookie season. To nobody’s surprise, that was good enough to win the Calder Trophy.
He also played on Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey, where he tallied three points in three games. He was able to stay healthy through it all, playing in all 82 games for the Leafs – an invaluable part of their squad that season.
Since then, Matthews has never been below a point-per-game player in any of his seven NHL seasons. His career high in points and goals came during the 2021-22 season, where he scored 60 goals and 46 assists (106 points) in only 73 games. That season even earned him some comparisons to Connor McDavid, with some saying Matthews might actually be the best player in the world. It also earned him the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Hughes’ Start in the NHL
Hughes’ start in the NHL was wildly different from that of Matthews. The 5-foot-11 Hughes, who is four inches shorter than Matthews, struggled significantly. He got bounced around like a ping-pong ball, routinely skating back to the bench in agony after a big hit. He missed some time with injury and only scored seven goals to go with 14 assists in 61 games. For comparison, Matthews scored more than half of Hughes’ entire rookie season goals in his first two periods. To add insult to injury, Hughes was terrible defensively, finishing with a minus-26 rating.
Some were even prematurely giving him the label of “bust”, despite being 18 years old.
Nonetheless, Hughes maintained his swagger and confidence and made steady progress in each season. In his second season (the 2020 COVID-shortened season) he notched 11 goals and 20 assists in 56 games. Those numbers were better, but still nowhere near expected for a first-overall pick.
He started to break out during the 2021-22 season, but not before missing almost two months with a shoulder injury. Finally, he started producing at an elite level as he scored 56 points in 49 games. For the first time, he started to get accustomed to scoring on the powerplay. He did not commit a single penalty either.
Matthews had a much better start in the NHL, and it isn’t close. He gets the advantage here too.
Last Season: Matthews Slows Down, Hughes Surges
Matthews, for his standards, slowed down a bit – following up his outstanding MVP season with a 40-goal, 45-assist effort (85 points) in 74 games. That’s still elite, no question, but it certainly hit the brakes on the “Matthews might be better than McDavid” conversation.
Hughes, on the other hand, had by far the greatest season of his career. His 99 points in 78 games broke the Devils’ franchise record for points in a single season (Patrik Elias, 96). His 43 goals were, for the first time, more than Matthews, despite Matthews being touted as more of a pure goal scorer.
Hughes also established himself as one of the best even-strength players in the game, with 34 of his 43 goals coming during 5v5 play. That’s including about a month-long stretch where he really struggled after missing four games with an upper-body injury.
Regardless, Hughes’ 56 assists were 10 more than Matthews has ever had in a season. Initially, this argument would have had no weight. Hughes had risen to be the better playmaker, but Matthews was the better goal-scorer. Now that Hughes’ goal-scoring is catching up, a case could be made.
As for this most recent season, Hughes gets the edge. The numbers show that his season was better.
When comparing the two, it must be taken into consideration that Hughes is still four years younger than Matthews. After Matthews’ age-21 season, he had not totaled more than 73 points in any season. Hughes had 99.
However, if we’re going based on overall track record, it’s unfair to say Hughes is better *right now* after Matthews has put up five straight seasons of over a P/G. Hughes has not reached that level of consistency yet, simply because he hasn’t had enough time.
Though, Wayne Gretzky thinks he can do so, and more:
If that isn’t high praise, what is?
Each player has slightly different unique attributes that will continue to make them successful as time progresses. Matthews is certainly better defensively than Hughes. Hughes is better at even strength. Matthews has the better shot. Hughes is a better playmaker.
Both are still incredibly young and could potentially get even better.
Currently, I would say Matthews is better. Yet, this is a pivotal season in the debate. If both are able to stay healthy, it will be very interesting to see how they stack up against each other.
Regardless of your opinion on who is better, everyone could likely come to terms with one opinion:
The NHL needs to have an international competition ASAP so we can see these two play together. If that never happens, we have been absolutely robbed of seeing something incredibly special.
Keep your eyes peeled, as these two should be human highlight reels all season.