(original photo via: Mitch Highman)
On June 22, 2019, the Buffalo Sabres traded up to the 102nd overall pick to select Aaron Huglen from Roseau, Minnesota. This pick was a bit surprising as it went against the common theme of drafting low ceiling prospects in the middle rounds that has seemingly existed throughout multiple GM regimes in Buffalo.
Aaron Huglen was different. Corey Pronman described him as “one of the most purely skilled players that will get picked outside of the 1st round” in his 2019 NHL Draft preview. Huglen also gained a lot of internet clout after he pulled off “the Michigan” against Canada in the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup semifinals:
Unfortunately, he would be sidelined for his first ever development camp with the Buffalo Sabres with a back injury that he suffered while lifting weights in the spring. This back injury continued to cause problems for Huglen and he would eventually miss the entire 2019/20 season. He underwent surgery in May 2020, returned to the ice in July 2020, and was finally cleared for contact in November 2020.
On January 2, 2021, after not playing in an organized hockey game for over 20 months, the 19 year-old Aaron Huglen returned to the ice for the Fargo Force of the USHL. From everything we have seen out of him so far, it appears that he has not skipped a beat in his development.
So, with all of that being said, let’s take a dive into Aaron Huglen’s game and see why I think he is one the most intriguing prospects in the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect pool.
I wanted to track some of the games I watched of Aaron Huglen to see if I can notice any trends in his game. As a 19 year-old NHL draft pick in the USHL, he is expected to be dominant. However, he is in a bit of a unique situation due to his 20-month injury hiatus. I went into this data tracking trying to remain open-minded, but there was really no need to because his numbers were fantastic.
The first and most basic stat I tracked was his 5v5 Corsi For % which is simply shot attempts while he is on the ice at 5v5. He managed to put up an impressive 67.4 CF% while on the ice, controlling over 2/3rds of all shot attempts.
I further broke down this stat to look at both high-danger shot attempts (within the slot) and medium-danger shot attempts (within the “home plate” area). Basically, it takes out the low-danger shot attempts which are typically just aimless shots from the point. The two numbers are combined to create a 5v5 High & Medium Danger Corsi For %. Huglen’s 5v5 HMDCF% was 70.8%, meaning that an even greater amount of dangerous opportunities were in his favor.
Another piece of my tracked data that stood out was Huglen’s Individual High Danger Shot Attempts per 60 which looks at the amount of high danger shot attempts Huglen generates himself. He ended up with 8.1 iHDSAT/60 at 5v5 which is a pretty remarkable number. He is getting a slot shot attempt or a high-danger rebound attempt once every 7:24 of 5v5 ice time. That is up there with some of the top offensive players in the USHL.
He also happened to be a pretty solid player in transition with a 56.5% controlled zone entry success rate (lower because of a large amount of dump-ins) and a 60.0% controlled zone exit success rate.
Muscle Memory Bank
It’s pretty easy for someone to assume that Aaron Huglen would have a lot of rust after being off the ice for over a year and without game action for nearly two years. But, he managed to pull this off in his 1st game back:
Oh and then he pulled this off just a few shifts later (the first defenseman he moves around is a projected 2nd round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft):
How is he able to do this after not playing a competitive hockey game for so long? Muscle memory. Huglen has an arsenal of moves that he can unleash on any given play. Maybe he goes to a toe drag, maybe even a between-the-legs toe drag, or just a simple head fake/drop pass combo. It’s hard to imagine watching a full game of Aaron Huglen and not seeing at least one toe drag attempt.
Once you repeat a certain move thousands of times, it is built into your muscle memory bank and becomes instinctive. All of these finesse moves are hardwired into Huglen’s game which is one of the reasons he is such a dangerous player when the puck is on his stick. I am amazed when some players pull off some of these moves in game action, but it is expected with Aaron Huglen.
Do not think that this “muscle memory bank” of moves makes his game predictable. He may pull off similar moves, but no two moves are exactly the same. He has the mind to be able to assess an attacking situation and decide what adjustments are necessary to beat the opponent. All of his movements are done with a purpose.
Freedom of Hands
One trait that all great stickhandlers share is the ability to keep their hands away from their body when handling the puck. It is important for players to keep their upper hand on the stick away from their body to allow for a great range of mobility when the puck is on their stick. The puck should be handled in front of the hips rather than across the hips.
One notable prospect who has struggled a bit with this is Canucks’ 2019 1st round pick, Vasili Podkolzin. He suffers from very “rigid” stickhandling with his tight upper hand forcing his stick to be held across his hips rather than in front. Here is a quick clip of Podkolzin from the 2019 World Juniors:
You can almost feel the rigidity in his stickhandling. Podkolzin still manages to navigate through the defense, but that is primarily because of his feet and a lack of pressure. Once he is confronted by the two Canadian blueliners, his stickhandling and footwork do not allow him to push the play to a higher-danger area.
Now let’s contrast Vasili Podkolzin’s stickhandling with that of Aaron Huglen:
Notice how Huglen always manages to keep his hands in front of his body even with the pressure from the opposing defender. His top hand is free which allows him to comfortably make a quick little move on the goalie as he gets in close. Everything about this sequence is fluid and smooth.
Another great thing about keeping your stick in front of your hips is the amount of passing angles it opens up. In the clip below, you can see how the freedom of Huglen’s (#22) hands allow him to make a pass across his body that fools the defenders and nearly leads to the OT winner as he crashes the net after Broz’s (#9) wraparound attempt:
There are a lot of prospects who have fantastic hands, but completely lack the skating ability to make their hands effective past the junior or minor levels. Strong hands are one layer of deception a player can possess and strong edgework can provide an extra layer of deception. Combine these two skills and you have yourselves a dangerous offensive player.
In terms of footspeed, Aaron Huglen rates out as average at best. He is able to beat out opponents 1v1 at the USHL level, but I do not expect him to be considered a “burner” once he reaches the pro ranks.
At the end of the day, footspeed can often be overrated when evaluating talent. I prefer to look at how dynamic a players skating ability is. The great thing about Huglen is his edgework is fantastic and this allows him to be an absolute pain to defend when the puck is on his stick. This gives him the ability to extend plays, spin out of a rush to find a trailer pass and it makes his head fakes that much more effective. Deception is baked into Huglen’s game as he has both the hands and the feet.
Creating Space Through Passing
The previous section discussed how Huglen has both the hands and the feet of a dangerous offensive player. This section will discuss arguably the most important ingredient to a dangerous offensive player: the mind.
One thing Aaron Huglen does exceptionally well in the offensive zone is creating space through passing. He is a big fan of the classic “give-and-go” passing sequence as seen in the clip below:
Huglen skates past #43 on Des Moines and finds himself in a 2v1 situation coming up the left side of the ice. A smart, quick pass to Tristan Broz (#9) causes the Des Moines defender to switch on to him, leaving Huglen with a wide open lane to the front and a high-danger shot after he receives the pass. There was no hesitation by Huglen in finding the open ice, he knew where he was going before the puck left his stick.
Here’s another example of a smart passing sequence kickstarted by Huglen, this time using a deceptive drop pass:
In this situation, Aaron Huglen (#22) is puck carrier in a 3v2 situation for Fargo with his wingers on the flanks. He does a fantastic job masking this drop pass by not altering his body language in any way. The Lincoln defenders must act quick as their focus quickly shifts to the two wingers. Huglen slips between the defenders, finds himself open in the slot, but the final pass gets blocked. Just a simple, effective passing sequence that takes advantage of an odd-man rush.
There is a good amount of dazzle in Huglen’s game, but he does not put on blinders when the puck is on his stick. He knows where his teammates are, he knows how to make the simple plays, and his skill helps open up doors on the ice that would not be there otherwise. His mind really complements his skill.
In my tracking data, it was pretty clear that the Fargo Force’s top line with Tristan Broz (#9 on Fargo in the above clips) became much more dangerous once Aaron Huglen returned to lineup. In the 5 games I tracked of Broz without Huglen, the top line had a respectable 54.6 Corsi For % at 5v5. However, when broken down into just high and medium-danger shot attempts, the Corsi For % drops to 49.6%. With just high-danger shot attempts, it drops even further to 42.9%. With Huglen that line’s 5v5 stats jumped to 67.4 CF%, 70.6 HMDCF%, and 75.0 HDCF% over 4 tracked games.
I also noticed that when Tristan Broz was on the ice without Aaron Huglen at 5v5, his team averaged 8.8 high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes. When Broz is with Huglen, that number jumps up to 20.8 high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes. While this is a very small data set, there is definitely evidence that Huglen adds a different dimension of danger to Fargo’s offensive attack. There is a visible difference in the play of Fargo’s top line with Huglen as their offensive zone time is no longer relegated to the perimeter. They have also managed to create a lot more offense off the rush kickstarted by takeaways in the neutral and defensive zones.
The Future Outlook
As I said before, it is a bit difficult to analyze Aaron Huglen this season because he is in a unique situation with 20 months lost due to a back injury. His age tells us that he is in his 2nd post-draft year while his actual game experience is at the same level as a player in their 1st post-draft year. That is without taking into account the rust that he may be dealing with as he adjusts to playing competitive hockey again.
Huglen currently has 19 points in 17 games for the Fargo Force, but he only saw limited minutes in his first few games and has fallen victim to some puck unluck. Due to his circumstances, I think it is a bit of unfair to compare his numbers to other NHLers who happened to be in the USHL for their 2nd post-draft season. Huglen has done nothing this season to make one believe that he is any less of a prospect than he was when the Sabres selected him in 2019. In fact, one can argue that he may be outperforming his draft day expectations.
Huglen will be heading to the University of Minnesota this fall where he will join another Sabres’ prospect, Ryan Johnson. The Golden Gophers have returned to their place among the college hockey elite and it should be a great place for Huglen’s game to further develop. They will return a great amount of talent and they have a really solid group of freshman forwards entering the program out of the USHL.
It is hard to say what Huglen’s development timeline will look like. Maybe he spends two years in the NCAA or maybe he spends upwards of four. What I do know is that he is a prospect that possesses a great deal of talent and he may be the only forward in the Sabres system with top six potential outside of Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn, and J.J. Peterka.
His skill and hockey IQ all rate out very high for a 4th round pick. Huglen should be able to carve out a role anywhere in an NHL lineup if he does not hit that top six forward ceiling. His agility on his feet, strong play-reading ability, and his long reach allow him to be very effective defensively, especially in 1v1 situations. He is much more than an offensive specialist who does not take care of his own end of the ice.
The Sabres should take the slow-and-steady approach to Huglen’s development. Due to a full lost year of development, he will be 20 years old as he enters his freshman season with the Gophers. Give him time to adjust to the increased pace and assure that the coaching staff is harvesting his incredible puck skills. The Sabres undoubtedly have a special, young talent on their hands with Aaron Huglen.