Things are getting interesting at the top of the NHL Draft.
Jack Hughes has long been the top prospect for the NHL’s 2019 draft and he hasn’t really played his way off that pedestal. Injuries caused him to miss part of the WJC and the entirety of the Five Nations Cup, two big events on the junior international schedule. But as far as his production goes, Hughes is having another monster year and is just four points off of Clayton Keller’s all-time USNTDP points record of 189.
But Kaapo Kakko is making a late charge with his production at both the WJC and in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional league. On Thursday, he set a new goals record for a first-time draft eligible player, breaking the mark set by Aleksander Barkov in 2012-13.
A key difference here is that Barkov scored 21 goals in 53 games whereas Kakko did it in Game 45. Kakko only has 16 assists so he’s still 10 points shy of that record. Kakko’s 0.84 points per game mark, however, is fourth all-time for a U18 player, behind just Mikael Granlund (0.93), Barkov (0.91) and Jari Torkki (0.88).
In Sam Cosentino’s draft rankings from Wednesday, Kakko surpassed Hughes as the No. 1 ranked prospect for the first time. And now there is some thought Kakko, who currently plays the wing, may also move to centre, though that depends on which team drafts him. If the team that wins the draft lottery believes Kakko is a centre, that could be the formula for his name to get called first.
“He’s not Laine where Laine is kind of a one-trick pony,” 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.”
Often when a player has been the undisputed top prospect in his draft year for as long as Hughes, late challengers tend to hop into the conversation as the draft gets close. More often than not, though, the first overall pick doesn’t change.
It didn’t go to plan in 2017 though. Nolan Patrick was ranked No. 1 for more than a year out of his draft, but ended up going second overall behind Nico Hischier, who burst onto the scene at the WJC much like Kakko did.
But with the amount of successful high-end prospects Finland has produced over recent years, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kakko, legitimately, is making a push for first overall.