Kakko’s Performance Pulling Him out of Rangers’ Grasp?

Maybe the New Jersey Devils are simply jumping at the opportunity to spend the lead-up to the NHL draft tweaking the New York Rangers.

The Devils’ recent Twitter strategy regarding their first-overall draft pick in June has often taken a cheeky and witty approach, forcefully vague and possibly designed to provoke hopeless speculation over whether Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko will be their choice in Vancouver on June 21.

It looks like good fun, the kind of harmless back-and-forth that’s so lacking on social media. The Devils using their spot atop the draft to indirectly work fans of their bitter rivals across the Hudson, who hold the second pick, into a froth of uncertainty could in theory lighten up the animosity between two clubs in uneasy proximity – at least temporarily.

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And yet – what if New Jersey isn’t just having fun? What if the humorous tone surrounding their refusal to hint at their selection is cover for “We just can’t decide yet?”

If general manager Ray Shero and co. are indeed conflicted on whether to simply stick with Hughes, who’s been the consensus No. 1 in this draft for what seems like forever now, it might have something to do with what they’ve seen out of Finnish winger Kakko during the World Championships – a continuation of his remarkable climb that’s occurred within the past year.

Finland's Kaapo Kakko
Finland’s Kaapo Kakko (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Kakko’s surge toward the top of the draft has been due primarily to a dominant 2018-19 season in Finland’s top league, as he recorded 22 goals and 16 assists in 45 games playing against mostly older players. Kakko turned 18 on Feb. 13.

Hughes, though, has been on everyone’s radar for years, the hype around the American center who turned 18 on Tuesday built to a fever pitch through extensive media coverage. In contrast, Worlds has proved to be the coming-out party for Kakko, who hasn’t had close to the same exposure. The winger has been the talk of the tournament – even over Hughes.

Is it possible now that the rebuilding Rangers are actually hoping they don’t have a shot at Hughes?

Kakko Living up to Newfound Hype at Worlds

Two goals in his first game. A hat trick in his second. A spectacular goal against Canada that has scouts drooling, and another breathtaking one in a dominant game against Denmark. Though the Devils have done extensive homework on Kakko, perhaps his performance has been just as big an eye-opener for team management as it has for everyone else.

Using the old adage “A man among boys” to describe Kakko’s past year might work if he wasn’t the boy dominating the men, which has been the case for the teenager who was the best player in Finland’s Liiga before turning the World Championships into his personal highlight reel.

Parsing every word for clues in a 1-minute, 47-second video posted on social media and the Devils’ website Wednesday is probably pointless, but after all, the club is practically inviting everyone to do so.

“He’s a man already,” Devils European scout Niklas Evertsson says of Kakko, with the team’s discussions (perhaps) curiously leading off with their evaluation of the Finn. “Every new stage he has entered, he’s been the best player.”

More?

“The best he played was in the (Finnish league) playoffs, and even the other team(s) said their only goal was to slow down an 18-year-old kid so they could advance in the series,” fellow European scout Tom Sinisalo adds.

What’s apparent in listening to Evertsson and Sinisalo is the sense of reverence and thinly veiled excitement in their voices. There seems little doubt that both have come away with the impression that they’ve been scouting a future NHL star.

To be sure, that discussion is immediately followed by glowing testimony from amateur scout Scott Lachance about Hughes’ potential, but next up is assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald stating that he doesn’t think Hughes’ 5-foot-10, 170-pound stature should prevent him from achieving stardom at the NHL level.

Jack Hughes
U.S. National Team center Jack Hughes (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)*** Local Caption *** Jack Hughes

Perhaps Hughes’ size is no issue at all in the Devils’ minds – but could the fact that they felt compelled to address it publicly, not to mention leading the video with commentary on Kakko, be a subtle sign of how they are leaning?

Maybe it’s a total coincidence. Maybe they started with Kakko and included a mention of Hughes’ size to further misdirect the Rangers, their fans and everyone else. Maybe the Devils effectively chose Hughes the day they won the top-overall pick, and maybe discussing Hughes second means he’s the clear favorite.

Taking Hughes, though, might not be the slam-dunk decision it appeared to be a year ago, before Kakko’s rise to a draft stature that’s now considered near or even on par with the American prospect. Hughes has played well at Worlds and generated several prime scoring chances for a loaded U.S. team, recording six shots on net and hitting a post in a 6-3 victory over Great Britain on Wednesday while being robbed of a goal.

However, he has no points in four games, while Kakko has recorded six goals in five contests – the qualifier being that Kakko is playing top-line minutes and top-line situations, while Hughes is mostly centering the third line.

Teams don’t base player evaluations on one tournament, of course. Years of scouting go into decisions as big as this one, and consensus No. 1 draft-eligible players generally keep that spot until they’re selected. But maybe in this case, a player who has spent the past year steamrolling toward the top of the draft pool is putting the icing on the cake at worlds, punctuating the Devils’ need to strongly consider that Kakko might actually be the top player available.

Kakko a Better Fit than Hughes With Hischier?

There’s other avenues of pure speculation that one can go down. Do the Devils want another highly skilled yet smallish center to go with Nico Hischier, the top overall pick in 2017? Would Kakko’s 6-foot-2, 192-pound frame and more physical style be a better value alongside Hischier, a fellow European who has recorded 99 points over his first two NHL seasons?

Hughes remains the odds-on favorite to become a Devil next month, which would give New Jersey a pair of fast, elusive and dynamic centers around which to continue building. Passing on him and watching him develop into the second coming of Patrick Kane – a fellow American whose game compares closely to that of Hughes’ – is the kind of decision that can get a general manager fired.

There’s also the issue of the career-long pressure that taking Kakko first would create for the Finnish forward – he would be expected to become a clearly better player than Hughes to justify New Jersey having drafted him over the consensus No. 1.

General manager Ray Shero
Devils general manager Ray Shero (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Rangers are in an easy position, guaranteed one of the top two players in the draft, needing only to sit back and wait for New Jersey’s choice. The Devils might be taking the time left to try and make the Blueshirts expend some mental energy guessing who will be there for them at No. 2.

New Jersey has continued to use social media to put forth an easy confidence toward the pending decision with another grin-inducing post this week. One can only wonder, though, if the Devils are doing so to create a smokescreen to distract from a possibly conflicted evaluation process.

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And who could blame them? With each thrilling performance in Slovakia, Kakko could be making the Devils think twice about who they want donning their No. 1 sweater in British Columbia next month – and the Rangers increasingly unsure about which player will be pulling on theirs.