The New Jersey Devils will be the first team to walk up to the Rogers Arena stage June 21 in Vancouver at the 2019 NHL Draft and barring something unexpected the team will choose one of two players.
General manager Ray Shero and his staff will either select American Jack Hughes from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program or Finland’s Kaapo Kakko of the TPS club in Liiga.
Hughes, a centre, is the top North American prospect and Kakko, a winger, is ranked tops among international skaters, according to NHL Central Scouting’s final 2019 draft rankings. For most of the 2018-19 hockey season, though, Hughes has had the edge on Kakko but in recent months the Finn has closed the gap.
The Devils posted an interesting video Wednesday featuring footage from a recent meeting involving Shero, his management team and scouting staff during which the group breaks down some of Hughes’s and Kakko’s strengths.
“We’re all here for the same reason and that’s to improve this hockey club and that’s a challenge but exciting and I think it’s an exciting time for where we are,” Shero said. “In terms of the type of player [we want], you gotta be a self-starter, competitive, you gotta have grit, you have to be a team-first player.”
Hughes or Kakko
Find out what the scouts and GM Ray Shero are looking for in the number one pick. pic.twitter.com/2hfwQJ5y4N
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) May 15, 2019
Both players are currently in Slovakia representing their respective countries at the 2019 IIHF World Championship with Kakko’s stock in particular enjoying an uptick in value.
Kakko is leading Finland in points and his five goals through three games has him tied for second in the tournament behind NHL stars Patric Hornqvist (Sweden) and Evgenii Dadonov (Russia).
“He’s a man already,” Devils European scout Niklas Evertsson said of Kakko. “Every new stage he has entered he’s been the best player.”
The 18-year-old Turku native who stands six-foot-two and 190 pounds had 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games with TPS this past season.
“He knows he’s good — and that’s [what] his coach said too — he knows he’s good but he also expects a lot from himself,” European scout Tom Sinisalo added.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) May 10, 2019
Meanwhile, Hughes has gone pointless in four games at the worlds thus far but retired NHL defenceman-turned-scout Scott Lachance believes Hughes’s résumé speaks for itself.
“He’s a student of the game,” Lachance said. “Obviously, on the ice, what separates him from everybody else in the draft is acceleration, skill, ability to make plays at full speed.”
Hughes is only five-foot-10 and 170 pounds but a lack of size doesn’t appear to worry Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald.
“He’s going to be quick enough, fast enough, smart enough down low to not get tied up with big guys, to understand where he’s at and he’ll use the God-given talents that he has to play defence,” Fitzgerald said of Hughes. “Quickness, quick stick, moving pucks, transition, get out of the zone and then right back on offence.”
The New York Rangers currently hold the No. 2 pick so GM Jeff Gorton, if he so chooses, can sit back and select whichever player falls to him.
Shero’s job isn’t that simple.
In addition to the first-overall selection, the Devils also boast three second-round picks (their own plus Boston’s and Nashville’s) and two thirds (Ducks and Stars) to work with.
When the Devils last won the NHL Draft Lottery – all the way back in 2017 – they elected to go with European Nico Hischier over North American Nolan Patrick despite Patrick being rated above Hischier for much of the 2016-17 campaign.
Will history repeat itself in 2019?