When Devils general manager Ray Shero steps to the podium in Vancouver on Friday to make the first pick in the NHL draft, most expect him to select American Jack Hughes, the presumptive top choice. Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish winger who lit up the World Championships last month and who starred while playing in the top professional league in Finland, likely will be taken next by the Rangers, who hold the No. 2 pick.
But the Devils have been here before, just two years ago, when they had the first pick in the 2017 draft. And Shero surprised more than a few people then, when he chose Swiss center Nico Hischier instead of Nolan Patrick. Hischier seems to have worked out for the Devils so far. Is there a chance Shero and the Devils could surprise again, and this time take Kakko instead of Hughes? It’s definitely not impossible.
Let’s take a look at Hughes and Kakko.
Tale of the Tape
2018-19: Played for the U.S. National Team Development Program. Hughes scored 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists) in 50 games for the NTDP this season, and ended his career with a program-record 228 points, shattering the old mark of 189 set by Clayton Keller. Slowed by injury, he still helped the U.S. to the silver medal in the World Junior Championships, losing to Kakko and Finland in the gold medal game. He also led the U.S. to the bronze medal in the World U18 Championships. He had a goal and two assists in the third-place game against Canada and set a career World U18 scoring record. Hughes was also a member of the U.S. team for the World Championships.
Position: Right wing
2018-19: Played for TPS (Liiga) in Finland’s top professional league. Kakko excelled among seasoned pros with 22 goals in 45 games, a Finnish record for an under-18 player. In January, he scored the game-winning goal for Finland in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships. Finland beat Hughes and the U.S. in a head-to-head matchup. In May, he scored a team-best six goals for Finland, which surprised everyone by winning the World Championships with a roster light on NHL players.
Hughes: His skating stands out, and his vision and ability to make plays is obvious based on the number of assists he had (78 in 50 games for the NTDP). Also, don’t sleep on his shot. It’s NHL-caliber already.
Kakko: Has a fully grown body and elite hands that can handle the puck in tight spaces and find ways to finish around the net. Has the hockey IQ to see openings on the ice as they develop and fill them. Uses his size well to work the boards.
Hughes: He’s not big (though he claims to be 5-11, rather than his listed 5-10) and, other than the World Championships, he hasn’t played against pros. Assuming he makes the NHL this season, he’d be the first player to go directly from the NTDP to the NHL. So he’d be making a big jump.
Kakko: While he’s played against pros in Finland, he did it on the bigger European ice surface, so he’ll have to adjust to NHL rinks. The narrower surface changes shooting angles and means tighter spaces and more contact.
Hughes: “I went to a camp in July in Toronto, and the best three players were Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid and John Tavares,’’ said Dan Marr, the director of NHL’s Central Scouting says. “The next best player was Jack Hughes. It was a series of skill drills they were doing that involved skating, quickness, speed, execution, precision, and right away, you could see he already has an NHL shot, for example. So he’s got that talent that he belongs in that group.’’
Kakko: “Right now, Kakko has gotten the status. He’s a little more physically developed, and that dictates the type of game he’s capable of playing, the situations he can be used in, the results that he gets, and skill levels, smarts, skating,’’ Marr said. “You go down the boxes to check off, he has those.’’