Jack Hughes has had the distinction of being the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft for so long, there aren’t many new positive things you can say about him. What ends up happening a lot of the time in these situations is people start to nit-pick the top prospect’s weaknesses and search for another player who could, perhaps, challenge for first overall.
We’ve seen this play out many times before. John Tavares was granted exceptional status and early entry into the OHL and was the top-ranked prospect for the 2009 draft at least two years beforehand. But as we got closer to that draft, following his 58-goal season, issues with his skating ability started to become a talking point. Those doubts sparked the idea that Victor Hedman or even Matt Duchene may be the better prospect. The same thing happened with Taylor Hall, who was challenged late by Tyler Seguin in 2010.
In both cases, the longtime No. 1 prospect held on to his title and went first overall. However, Nolan Patrick was the top prospect in 2017 and had been for a couple years. Injury concerns crept in, though, as Patrick was limited to just 33 games in his draft season. Nico Hischier then made his case for the draft’s top selection from the world juniors on, and the Swiss forward wound up dethroning the Brandon Wheat King.
Hughes doesn’t have those kind of concerns. He set a new career points record for the U.S. National Team Development program, surpassing Clayton Keller by 39 points, and blew past Jeremy Bracco by 32 to set a new assists record. At the world under-18s, Hughes broke Alex Ovechkin’s tournament scoring record by registering 20 points in seven games. There’s nothing wrong with Hughes and his own play hasn’t done anything to suggest he isn’t worthy of top spot in 2019.
But here comes Kaapo Kakko.
“I think so,” Kakko said when asked by NHL.com’s Mike Morreale if he has closed the gap enough on Hughes for first overall consideration. “The teams have their needs and preferences. Jack is a very talented player and an excellent skater. That’s all I can say. Me? I’m good in the offensive zone, I can score and create chances and am good with the puck. I guess those are my strengths. Hopefully I’m ready for the (NHL). I still have a lot of work to do and need to get stronger and faster in the corners. I know I’m good with the puck, but that’s one area in my game I can still improve.”
As impressive as Hughes’ resume is, Kakko managed to assemble a record-breaking one himself. He finished with 22 goals in 45 games in Finland’s top professional league, which passed Aleksander Barkov for the most ever by an under-18 player. It’s worth noting Barkov played eight more games than Kakko.
Kakko was on the radar as one of the best prospects in 2019 last summer, but his charge at Hughes really started at the world juniors. That’s a tournament for 19-year-olds, but Kakko (who was 17 at the time) was the fourth-highest scorer on his gold medal-winning team and outplayed Hughes (who missed a couple games to injury).
Kakko was also the talk of the town in Bratislava and Kosice, Slovakia, at the men’s World Championship this month, where he scored six goals in 10 games to again lead the gold medal Finns. That roster didn’t have any NHL forwards on it, but Kakko was up against a bunch of them throughout.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) May 10, 2019
“If NJ wants a winner, they should pick Kaapo,” Finland’s head coach Jukko Jalonen told Julie Robenhymer. “Hughes is a great player, but in those tight games, Kakko has always come out on top. He’s playing like a man and looks like he could play in the NHL right now. He’s better than he was a few months ago at the world juniors and, in a few months more, he will be even better. After a few years, he will be one of the best players in the world.”[sidebar]
But unlike Hughes, Kakko isn’t at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo this week. The physical testing takes place on Saturday and we won’t see the six-foot-two, 190-pound right winger put his body through the gruelling V02 max bike test. Instead, he’s celebrating Finland’s latest hockey triumph. There’s really nothing left for Kakko to prove after a 13-month span in which he won three gold medals and emerged as a big-bodied sniper who looks ready to play against the world’s top professionals.
“You always want to see the guys here, but I think everyone’s pretty certain what’s going to happen with him,” Sam Cosentino told Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver. “The way I look at it is, pretty unique experience winning the worlds and with what’s gone on there. I’m okay with it. I’ve seen guys who’ve come out of the Memorial Cup and same thing, the Memorial Cup ends on Sunday, the combine starts Monday and guys don’t show up because they were involved in the long process of what the Cup had to offer plus the long season.”
The New Jersey Devils won the draft lottery and will be the team that decides whether or not Kakko nabs No. 1 from Hughes. Funny enough, they were also the team that picked Hischier to jump the line past Patrick two years ago.
So when GM Ray Shero and his scouts got together for their meetings before the combine, it was interesting to hear him describe the type of player they were after.
“You gotta be a self starter, competitive. You have to have grit. You have to be a team-first player,” Shero noted.
And, look, Hughes fits the mould of everything you’d want in a first overall pick. He may not be as big as Kakko (five-foot-10, 170 pounds), but Hughes’ strength is his speed, acceleration and how shifty he is. One Devils scout noted that those attributes and Hughes’ IQ is what will keep him from getting bogged down in the corners or behind the net with bigger players in the NHL. He’s definitely competitive and a team-first player.
You wouldn’t pick any player over Hughes just for his grit level, but Kakko may have the advantage there. He’s heavier on the puck, stronger in the corners already and clearly has the goal scoring upside you’d want in a first overall pick as well.
This is no slam dunk decision either way. Because of Kakko’s size advantage and how recently he’s excelled against top competition, it may be easier to argue why he should go first overall right now.
But we’ll leave you with this, a quote from Devils Senior Director of Player Personnel Dan MacKinnon on how special Hughes is:
“He’s electric. Just electric. Again, you have to go back a long time and, for me, it’s been 20 years, to find many comparables for Jack Hughes in terms of how he transports the puck with speed and individual skill but at the same time has an incredible awareness of everyone else on the ice around him. When you combine those two things, the give-and-go game and knowing where everyone is but also the individual skill to sort of slip through small spaces, it’s a pretty lethal package.”