The Devils weren’t supposed to be in this position.
Entering the NHL Draft Lottery that took place on April 9th, the Devils had the third-best odds to win the number one overall selection at 11.5%, behind only the Colorado Avalanche (via the Senators thanks to the Matt Duchene deal) and the Los Angeles Kings.
The Avalanche fell three spots to number four and the Kings fell three spots themselves to number five. The New York Rangers, who went from having the sixth-best odds to win the number one pick, won the second draw and will, therefore, pick second behind their longtime rival Devils.
As per the debate in question, the Rangers are going to simply sit back and take whichever forward the Devils pass on. In all honesty, the Rangers are also champions of the lottery as they are getting an elite, mountain-sized ceiling forward regardless of who the Devils decide to take at the top.
Nevertheless, for the second time in three years, the Devils will be first onto the podium when the NHL Entry Draft begins on Friday, June 21st from Vancouver.
Two years ago, Swiss center Nico Hischier’s name was called by New Jersey as the first overall pick.
As a brief side note, Taylor Hall, New Jersey’s franchise player and 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner has an epic response to his team winning the Draft Lottery once again. Keep in mind Hall was a member of the Edmonton Oilers when they won the lottery to draft himself (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011), Nail Yakupov (2012), Connor McDavid (2015) and Nico Hischier while with the Devils in 2017.
They talk about Gretzky’s 92 goals or Sittler’s 10 pts in one game as records that may never be broken. But winning 5 draft lotteries in your first 9 years in the league? In 2 different draft lottery eras, no less. That is a record that will stand forever.
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy09) April 10, 2019
The Devils have a rather epic decision on their hands at the end of the day.
Jack Hughes, the consensus number one pick, just broke a bunch of star-studded records while with the US National Development program this past season while Kaapo Kakko scored 22 goals and 38 points in his native Finland’s top professional hockey league – SM-liiga – while playing half the year as a 17-year-old.
Both players were featured in the World Junior Hockey Championship while both also skated in the more recent World Hockey Championship with Kakko’s Finnish team taking him the gold medal.
Before we get into each player, you can, of course, bet on the outcome of the top pick, at any top NHL betting site. These odds will be courtesy of Bodog and Bovada.
Hughes vs. Kakko – No. 1 Pick Odds
The Case for Hughes
There has been a ton of NHL stars cycled through the US National Development Team over the last couple decades, and Hughes just topped them all in terms of production.
Hughes skated in two seasons with the USNDT and played in 110 games as both a 17 and 18-year-old. The USNDT plays both exhibition games as well as games inside of the United States Hockey League.
In sum, Hughes tallied 228 points in those 110 games, by far the most points in USNDT history.
The names behind him aren’t too shabby either. They include Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, and Jack Eichel. Now, some of these players didn’t skate in as many games as Hughes, but you get the picture. The guy leads the United States’ top developmental hockey league in historical production.
Like most 18-year-olds, Hughes has plenty of room to grow physically as he is listed at 170 pounds and 5’10” tall. Many players play the NHL at such size, 2018-19 Calder Trophy front-runner Elias Pettersson comes to mind – but we saw how Pettersson tailed off as the season went along.
Playing center in the NHL is a physically demanding position and Hughes will need to fill out that frame as he matures.
His skating is said to be elite, which certainly helps in today’s fast-paced NHL that is gearing more and more towards pace rather than physicality.
Add in the impressive hockey IQ, quick hands and elite play-making ability, Hughes has every tool to make his game work in the modern NHL. His resume speaks for itself.
Though not much fault of his own, the recently-completed World Hockey Championship didn’t help his chance of going at the top as Kaapo Kakko turned many more heads than Hughes.
For his part, Hughes failed to score a goal and had just three points in his seven games at the tournament. His first taste of professional competition didn’t go well, and it will be interesting to see if that performance, and the performance of Kakko in the same tournament, would be enough to sway the Devils off the consensus top pick for much of the last year or more onto the Finnish Kakko and his perhaps increased ability to play the professional game at this point.
The Case for Kakko
The Devils were a disaster for much of the last three-quarters of the NHL season last year and it would appear they don’t really anticipate seriously contending in the next year or two – pending their offseason free agent and trade moves.
As a result, Kakko’s outperformance of Hughes against top-notch professional competition may not be enough for them to switch gears to the riskier pick, but I guarantee it’s more of a conversation now than it would have been prior to the tournament.
Kakko scored six goals and added an assist for seven points in 10 games while registering a +10 for the tournament.
For what it’s worth, Kakko also arguably outperformed Hughes at the World Junior Hockey Championship where he tallied two goals and five points in seven games compared to the zero goals and four assists Hughes posted in four games with Team USA.
Kakko scored the game-winner with 1:26 to go in the third period of that World Junior Championship to win his team gold over Hughes and the Americans.
Needless to say, Kakko’s work on the international level this season did some great favors in his bid to upset Hughes and have his name called by Ray Shero and co. In Vancouver.
I’m not going to pretend to know their draft strategy, but most teams tend to draft the best player available rather than draft by position.
This works against Kakko’s chances.
Hughes is a center, and finding an elite, skilled, 200-foot enter is a lot tougher than finding a productive winger. If for instance, the Devils were deadlocked on who to take, there’s a strong chance that Hughes playing center ice would break such a debate.
Nonetheless, Kakko has played against professional competition for 51 games and has thrived. He tallied those 22 goals and 38 points in just 45 games in a very difficult SM-liiga, especially when we factor in his age of just 17 for the first four months of the season.
He’s the most prolific under 18 scorer in SM-liiga history and can play both a power and precision game. He’s said to be NHL top-six ready and be an impact and productive top-six player at that.
Hughes vs. Kakko: Who Goes at No.1?
This one is not as easy as it seems as I truly believe Kakko’s international performance – at the very same tournaments as Hughes – have given the Devils’ brass plenty to discuss leading up until June 21st.
If you are asking me who I believe the Devils will draft at number one, I’m taking Hughes.
That’s not to say he holds value. There’s enough doubt in my mind where I would simply not risk the juice at -400 and just stay away from this one altogether. Value-wise, Kakko is the play.
We don’t have to look too far back in the NHL draft to find a comparison to this debate. In fact, it’s almost identical.
Auston Matthews, an American center, had been the odds-on pick to be drafted first in the 2016 draft. He had been the consensus top pick for more than a year and doubt only started to creep in when Patrik Laine, a goal-scoring Finnish winger – had an outstanding World Junior tournament on a team that won gold.
See the resemblance?
When push came to shove, however, the Toronto Maple Leafs chose a potential franchise center that can do it all over a Finnish winger that perhaps didn’t have a skill set as wide and vast as the one Matthews possessed. Reflecting three years after the fact, I’m not sure Toronto was even close to getting off of Matthews and rolling the dice on the elite Finnish winger.
That’s what this comes down to in my opinion.
Kakko is in all likelihood going to be an All-Star caliber player, but as a winger he carries less responsibility on the ice and his skill set probably doesn’t cast as wide of a net as Hughes.
One thing we do know.
The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will get two fantastic hockey players into their organization on June 21st and those players will be compared for their entire careers.
For better or for worse.