The New Jersey Devils did it again. For the second time in three seasons, they came away with the first-overall pick at the NHL Draft Lottery. It’s a strong draft class, headed by consensus top prospect Jack Hughes, and Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko. The Devils will have the luxury of selecting either one, both of who would provide a lift to a franchise in significant need of more talent.
Why Hughes is the Top Prospect
Hughes has been the no. 1 prospect in this year’s draft class for quite some time, and it’s not without good reason. He finished this season with 48 points in 24 games for the USNTDP Juniors in the USHL, with 36 of those being assists. He also tallied 86 points in 41 games with the U.S. National U-18 team, which is part of the USDP. So what makes Hughes a game-changing prospect?
“Hughes set the NTDP’s all-time scoring mark and has distanced himself from Kakko by playing better after injury concerns. He remains the draft’s most electrifying player and his agility and edgework are unmatched,” says Steve Kournianos of the Sporting News.
“Hughes is one of the best USA prospects to be a first-year draft-eligible prospect. He’s an elite skater who is so tough when he gets going with speed. He’s got a high skill level and great vision with the puck and, at a standstill, he can make highly skilled plays QBing a power play. But what makes Hughes stand out from your typical playmaker is how he makes those plays at a million miles an hour. He’ll put pucks through legs while skating full speed and hit a target across the ice,” says Corey Pronman of The Athletic (from ‘Pronman: 2019 Draft Midseason Ranking,’ The Athletic NHL – 1/29/19).
Hughes is a dynamic forward with the elite playmaking ability the Devils haven’t had in their system for years. He’s not the biggest forward, at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, but that isn’t as much of an issue in a league that’s trending smaller. Brayden Point is at 5-foot-10, 166 pounds and finished with 92 points this season. Mitch Marner is 6-feet, 175 pounds and finished with 94 points. I think you get where I’m going with this.
As a natural center, Hughes will be a significant upgrade to the Devils down the middle. They’ve been searching for another top-six center for a while, and Hughes gives them that along with Nico Hischier. Add Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha to the mix, and the Devils are suddenly looking pretty good at center.
What About Kaapo Kakko?
Even though Hughes has been the consensus top pick for the longest time, Kakko is also in the discussion. He’s a different player than Hughes and has a different skill set, too. He finished the Liiga (Finland) season with 22 goals and 38 points, the former of which were more than Patrik Laine as a 17-year-old. So why should he be considered for the first-overall pick?
“The Patrik Laine to Hughes’ Matthews. If this was a different year, the Finnish winger would be sitting pretty in the pole position. Kakko blends size, speed, finishing ability, and terrific vision. He doesn’t blow you away with any one skill, but his arsenal of weapons come together to be extremely productive. He’s looking more and more comfortable in the middle of the ice as a 17-year-old in the Liiga. Scoring the golden goal in the WJC as a draft-eligible player certainly won’t hurt matters,” says Cam Robinson of Dobber Prospects, who has Kakko ranked second.
Kakko is much bigger than Hughes, at 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, so that gives him an edge physically. He’s also a natural right wing, although he’s capable of playing down the middle, too. The Devils could use another top-six right wing, which Kakko gives them, but that drafting on need isn’t the best strategy.
If the Devils use the first pick on Kakko, I don’t think it’d be a mistake at all. It’s not a fluke that he broke Laine’s scoring record in the Liiga. He was playing against pros on a regular basis, and his numbers show he was capable of handling the competition. He’ll give the Devils’ scouting department a tough decision to make when the time comes.
Devils and Rangers Rivalry Renewed
Another storyline that developed last night was the New York Rangers receiving the second-overall pick. And there’s no doubt it’ll add more hype around future games between the cross-river rivals. It also puts the pressure on the Devils to make the right selection, similar to when they chose Hischier first overall and the Philadelphia Flyers selected Nolan Patrick second overall.
Fortunately, I think it’ll be hard for the Devils to screw this up unless they take someone other than Kakko or Hughes. They’re both high-end prospects you can build your franchise around, so it’ll be fun to see these two as part of the Devils and Rangers rivalry for years to come. It’s just a matter of who’ll be playing for who.
That debate won’t fade away any time soon, and it’s only going to ramp up as we get closer to the draft. But the Devils should take Hughes with the first overall pick. Hall and Shero talked about needing to add more talent in their exit interviews on Monday. Hughes is the elite playmaker who can be the building block to being competitive again. And that’s what the Devils need to start this crucial offseason.