BUFFALO – Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish star who most likely will be the Rangers choice with the No. 2 selection in next month’s NHL draft, decided to skip this week’s NHL draft combine, where 103 players eligible to be selected came to Buffalo to be weighed, measured, timed and interviewed by the league’s 31 teams.
Kakko’s decision not to attend the combine probably won’t adversely affect his draft stock, however. The 18-year-old forward is rated the top European skater prospect by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau and all season long had been projected to go second in the draft, behind American forward Jack Hughes, the No. 1 North American skater, according to the CSB. The general consensus is that those two are head and shoulders above everyone else available in the draft.
Kakko’s strong spring – he scored six goals as Finland, with just two NHL players on its roster, won the World Championships -- could be giving the New Jersey Devils reason to consider whether to take him first, over Hughes. The Devils won the first pick in the NHL draft lottery, and the Rangers won the second pick. They will be happy to take either Kakko or Hughes, whichever player the Devils don’t select.
“We’re sitting there, and obviously, one team’s going to indicate to us how it’s going to go for the rest of the draft,’’ Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said last week. “So, I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us, and we look forward to, in a month’s time, what player we’re going to take.’’
Kakko, a 6-2, 190-pound wing, scored 22 goals and had 16 assists (38 points) in 45 games, playing as a 17-year-old in Finland’s top professional league. He scored four goals in five playoff games before starring for Finland in the Worlds. His performance there gave him – and Finland – a second gold medal at a world championship in 2019; in January, Kakko scored the game-winning goal as Finland beat Hughes and the U.S. in the gold medal game to win the World Junior Championships.
Meanwhile, Hughes, a 5-10, 170-pound center who is the younger brother of defenseman Quinn Hughes, the No. 7 overall in last year’s draft by the Vancouver Canucks, had a good year, too. He also played in the World Championships, as the only draft-eligible player on the squad, surrounded by NHL players on the U.S. team. He didn’t get as much ice time as Kakko, and had no goals, three assists in seven games. He did, though, have nine goals and 11 assists in seven games in the World Under-18 Championships, breaking Alex Ovechkin’s U18 record for career points, with 32. Playing in the U.S. National Team Development Program, Hughes had 34 goals and 78 assists (112 points) in 50 games against college teams and 12 goals, 36 assists, 48 points in 24 games against USHL teams.