After winning the NHL Draft Lottery and the number one overall pick for the second time in three years the New Jersey Devils have a groundbreaking decision in front of them. Do they draft American centerman Jack Hughes who has been projected as the first overall pick for quite some time now, and in the process give them two centers they can pencil in their lineup for the next decade (or more)?
Or do they draft the stud Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko who would possibly give them a second alpha player on the wing for years to come? There is also the option of trading that pick, but that is only if you get blown away with an offer that includes someone like Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau, or Toronto’s Mitchell Marner.
Assuming they take Hughes, he is now added to the Devils depth chart at the center position along with Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod, and Kevin Rooney. By my math (which is admittedly not great) that gives them six centers and they can only dress four per game. Even if the coaches and GM don’t feel that McLeod is ready for primetime, what else can you do?
Send Rooney back to the AHL and have Zacha, the sixth overall pick four years ago, as your fourth line center? Rooney is better suited for, and more effective in, that role. So does Zacha become trade bait? Can Ray Shero convince Zajac to waive his no-trade clause and then convince another GM in the league to take on a contract that has two years left on it at $5.75 million per year?
The reality in drafting a player like Hughes, or Kakko – who we assume both will be in the NHL next season – is that someone on the Devils is losing their job or losing an opportunity to compete for a job. Is there room for both Zajac and Zacha on the 2019-20 roster?
Now if they take Kakko that fills a need on the wing that the Devils desperately desire, but it’s also one that can be solved during free agency or via trade. New Jersey currently has Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman as their top four wingers. I think we all can likely agree that Coleman is best served as the team’s third line winger and one of their top penalty killers.
The next tier of wingers in the organization includes Joey Anderson, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian, Miles Wood, Marian Studenic, and John Quenneville. Is one of them ready to step up and play like a top-six winger in the NHL? That’s the million dollar question that Shero and coach John Hynes have to figure out this offseason before they make a selection at the Draft in Vancouver, and before players are available to sign during free agency.
It’s Good to Have Options
Free-agent-to-be Mats Zuccarello would be a fantastic fit on New Jersey’s top line alongside Hischier and Hall. Then if they take Hughes he could center a second line with Palmieri and Bratt. Now it’s starting to look like an NHL roster. Swap out Zuccarello for another free agent like Brock Nelson, bump Bratt up to the top line and now Hughes is centering Nelson and Palmieri. That’s not a terrible top-six at all.
Draft Kakko and you need to sign a center right? Matt Duchene will be available and the Devils have the money to spend to give him what he likely wants. So now you have Kakko and Hall flanking Hischier on the top line and Bratt with Palmieri on Duchene’s wings. That’s not terrible either.
History and ‘experts’ say: take the generational center over the winger every day and twice on Sunday. Kakko might be the better overall player in terms of his game at both ends of the ice but Hughes’ skating and hockey IQ are off the charts.
Regardless of who the Devils end up selecting their roster will look a lot different than it did the past two seasons, and the front office will have a lot of decisions to make on multiple players before we get to training camp on September 15.
Who do you think the Devils should select first overall and what other subsequent moves would you make if you were running things?
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.