Before we get into this piece, I want to point out that in any year where a No. 1-ranked prospect has clearly held that distinction for a prolonged period the stretch run usually brings some second-guessing. It happened to John Tavares with Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene on his heels. It happened to Taylor Hall as Tyler Seguin made a case for the top spot.
And almost every time this happens, the long-projected No. 1 pick ends up going first overall.
That isn’t always true. Nolan Patrick was 2017’s top prospect as far back as 2015 when he was a point-per-game player as a WHL rookie with the Brandon Wheat Kings. But injuries, along with Nico Hischier’s excellent play from the WJC on did end up dethroning Patrick. And in fact, looking at that draft today, maybe we all should have been talking about fifth-overall pick Elias Pettersson a little more.
About four months out from the 2019 NHL Draft, the same talk is beginning to pick up between Jack Hughes and No. 2-ranked Kaapo Kakko. Though Hughes has been dominating his competition, injuries have obstructed some international viewings for scouts. Meantime, Kakko had a great WJC as an underage player and has continued tearing up the Liiga — Finland’s top professional league.
In fact, Kakko’s goal-scoring pace right now has him on an historic trajectory. With 16 goals in 35 games, Kakko is tied for 14th in Liiga goal scoring, but he’s played fewer games than most others. His 0.46 goals-per-game pace ranks right up there with the top overall goal scorers in Finland. And historically, Kakko’s goal-scoring rate is currently the best of any under-18 player in the Liiga since 1990, surpassing some notable names from recent seasons.
But does Kakko compare to someone like Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi?
“He’s not Laine where Laine is kind of a one-trick pony,” Sportsnet draft guru Sam Cosentino said on the FAN 650’s The Playbook. “I look at Puljujarvi and he’s still trying to find his way. But I think (Mikko) Rantanen is a good target in that…he might be a guy who’s a little more like Kaapo Kakko.
“And maybe the comparison is fair to put him in the same boat as Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who did all these same things last year playing in the men’s league. He gets drafted third, Montreal takes a bit of heat over it, and then the next thing you know he’s turned out to be a really big piece for them.”
Citing these stats and comparing Kakko to some solid young Finnish NHLers is one thing, but getting to the podium and saying his name before Jack Hughes’ is called in June is another. Because although Hughes missed a few games at the WJC and the entire Five Nations tournament due to injury, he’s still wrecking the competition.
Hughes has 78 points in 43 games for the USNTDP this season, which follows a similarly dominant performance last year. With 1.89 points per game for the under-18 team last season and a 1.93 pace this season, Hughes is on track to finish with the two best seasons by this measure in USNTDP history. Auston Matthews’ season before his draft year still ranks No. 1 with 1.95 points per game.
All told, Hughes is currently just 15 points shy of tying Clayton Keller’s all-time record for points in a USNTDP career.
Taking Kakko over Hughes would take some guts. Kakko has more size (six-foot-two, 190 pounds vs. five-foot-10, 168 pounds) and the fact he’s already playing against fully grown men could be a factor when someone has to make a decision at No. 1. And as Cosentino notes, the results of the draft lottery could go a long way in shaping this unfolding storyline.
“I think the other thing is if you’re looking at Jack Hughes, is he going to be able to step in and play in the NHL right away? And depending on who is picking where, that might be a prerequisite to the player they take. And Kakko would likely be a more ready player to do that than Hughes simply because of his size. And the fact he’s played against men in a pro league all year long would give a slight edge over Hughes, who’s played against USHL and NCAA competition.”
Another determining factor for a team picking atop the draft is position. Hughes would immediately fill the coveted centre spot on a depth chart, whereas Kakko is a left-shooting right-winger.
A centre went first overall in four of the past six NHL drafts and in the other two it was a defenceman. The last time a winger was taken with the first-overall pick, Edmonton nabbed Nail Yakupov ahead of defenceman Ryan Murray and centre Alex Galchenyuk in 2012 and before that it was Edmonton again choosing Hall over Seguin in 2010.
But Cosentino said that just because Kakko plays wing now, it doesn’t preclude him from becoming a centre down the road, if his maturation as a player opens that door.
“I think people are starting to look at Kakko now as maybe being a guy who can be a centreman,” Cosentino said. “And there’s always going to be a bias to that position for sure.
“I never like to pigeonhole a player at this young age because oftentimes what happens is they take that next step and they get into the pro ranks and they get underneath the guys in the organization and the organization realizes maybe this guy’s grown, maybe he’s not as smart as we thought he was, maybe he’s more intelligent, maybe his skating is better and so that allows for positional change.”
Hughes has long been the favourite to go first overall and, for now, odds are that will still happen. But for the first time, Kakko is making a case for consideration, which will get even stronger with a good finish to the regular season and continued success in the playoffs.
It’s not that Hughes is playing his way out of the top slot — on the contrary, his performance has been outstanding this season and he’s clearly an elite playmaker with excellent vision and high-end skating ability. All of this is highly valued at the NHL level. There is no reason today to not believe Hughes will be an NHL star.
But Kakko, the latest in a recently excellent run of Finnish NHL prospects, is rising to a level that is hard to ignore and at the very least should lock him into the No. 2 spot.