Point/Counterpoint: Hughes vs. Kakko
We are nearing the 2019 NHL Draft, with the first-round selections starting promptly (right? all hockey events begin on time, I think?) at 8pm on Friday, June 21st. This is going to be a momentous occasion in Rangerstown, with the 2nd overall pick sparking the quantum leap for this rebuilding team that will put them back on the road to contention, very possibly sooner rather than later. There’s some nascent anxiety brewing however, with the Devils playing possum as far as whether or not they’ll really take Jack Hughes or swoop in and grab the play who, in my opinion, is actually preferable: Kaapo Kakko.
Now let me preface this by saying two things straight up: if we absolutely have to pick Hughes I’ll still probably be able to sleep at night. Also, New Jersey is not passing on him, so don’t spend too much time winding yourself up over this very, very minor non-issue. I’m going to lay out the argument for each of these, starting with the latter over the former because it’s easier to tack on as its own standalone bit of writing, and because we’re going in on Hughes and Kakko’s technique.
I want you to take a look at this. Who’s the best center on that team? Who plays the big minutes? Who, most importantly if you’re the Devils, is going to center their top line in their next Cup Finals blowout defeat (please do not remind me of the Rangers’s most recent stab at the winners’ circle, thanks). Their centers are, in case you can’t be bothered to click that link, Travis Zajac, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Kevin Rooney (?). That’s not exactly the kind of depth that lends itself to an extended period of playoff appearances – I don’t even need to get into stats or any type of deeper analysis, because surely you can grasp that it’s among the worst posse of pivots in the league.
The other thing is a bit more cultural. The analytics revolution has been going on for some time, but still hasn’t come to full fruition. The absolute summit of analytics calling the shots at the highest level of executive decision making hasn’t yet been reached, in that no all-in stats-based team has been successful with a nerd at the helm (John Chayka hasn’t exactly watched his team hoist the big silver thing, yet). Now, there’s plenty of reasons for this fact that I don’t think paint as grim of a picture of analytics as you might thing, but that’s beside the point. What I’m getting at is the notion that the old-school shot-callers are not going to pass up an American-born-and-trained center (because that position has certain ephemeral connotations attached to it making it a higher profile spot to play in, for whatever reason) who will (they hope) become a household name in the very near future. What if the US wins Olympic gold sometime in the next decade and a half with Jack Hughes leading the way? Do you really want that guy parading around east of the Hudson River with that medal? Why not at the Dinosaur BBQ outside the Prudential Center? These are the kinds of factors front office bigwigs take into consideration, for better or for worse.
The last minor angle to take here is that one of the analytics gurus the Devils recently hired was Tyler Dellow, the iconoclast numbers man. Sure, Matt Cane is running the department, a widely respected statistician whose work is second to very, very few, if not none, but let’s consider the dynamics in the meetings where final rankings are being made in Newark. The stats guys MIGHT make a case for Kakko, but the Hockey Men have final say, and in response to the arguments the Computer Boys make, they’ll cite Dellow’s love of faceoffs as a dispositive piece of evidence supporting the argument that Hughes is their next superstar. Number 6 wears red for the next however many years, end scene.
But why not humor the thought that the Rangers wind up stuck with the kid who had 112 points in 50 games with the US National Development Team U18 squad this past lap around the sun? Well, I spent some time yesterday in joyous Youtube black hole and found a concise, poorly-soundtracked (watch it on mute, for your own good), highlight package with some helpful slow-mo segments to really impress and bring out what it is that young Jack does so well. Here it is, give it a watch, and then circle back after 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
There’s two main hard skills that will immediately jump into the forefront of your mind when you watch even one clip from this already digestible video: his skating and his hands are sublime, and I mean that in the literal artistic sense. His ability to move and find space is facilitated by these skills, and his faculties of thinking through every option readily available, as well as his creativity for producing new opportunities heretofore unseen by his team mates all come back to the two things he does so well on a tactile (not tactical) level. He speeds up and slows down both his hands and his feet in rhythmic, jazz-like fluidity beyond anything the Rangers will have seen before in the modern era (excepting maybe Jagr, but the toolboxes involved in that comparison are fundamentally different I think), again, in the random and almost short-sighted event that the Devils opt for Kakko. It’s a sixth sense, and his aforementioned intellectual seventh sense is what’s going to allow him to run roughshod over the National Hockey League.
These two bits of ESP make his game very temporal: he speeds up and slows down the play at his whim because he is literally speeding up and slowing down just as well. Typically, and this is where I think his vision comes in above and beyond the typical comparison of Patrick Kane. Kane has similar physical capabilities, but he doesn’t see the game quite in the same way as Hughes. The Chicago Blackhawk wingman has a tendency to manipulate defense and play, to a certain degree, somewhat on his own. He can move the other team around the ice at his will, find pockets of space all over the playing surface as a result, and let that ripper of a wrister fly right to the back of the net whenever he wants.
Hughes is a bit more holistic and communally-oriented in ways even he probably doesn’t realize. The big difference to me is that Jack Hughes pulls the marionette strings of every other skater playing at any given moment, on both the opposing team and his own. He’s the chess master, the Wizard of Oz, setting up the spacing and positioning of every other man moving, including the goalie. This kind of preternatural, almost divination-esque eye for the game is most apparent when he plays with guys like Chris Kreider or Clayton Keller. He’s able to read his own team mates with the comprehension of a literary critic, setting them up just right for the highest quality scoring chance available among the many paths he’s already paved. It’s this hockey IQ that helps him bring out the best in any kind of linemate, and it’s that kind of skill that will go especially well with basically every other young gun the Rangers have. Want to see Kravtsov put up 30-40 goals in his rookie season? Staple him to Jack Hughes. Kreider gets 100,000 tip-ins right in front of the net? Jack Hughes has it covered. Activating big-slapper defensemen in potent-but-prudent positions? Oh buddy, do I know a guy.
Ok, ok, what about the guy we’re most likely to pick? Kakko is pretty good as well, no? The answer is a resounding yes, and to that end I present you with this slight longer highlight package from the most recent IIHF World Championship, at which he took home a gold medal (he also did the same in the IIHF U18 and U20 championships, not a bad haul for someone who’s just hit the age of majority). He dominated the tournament, and that’s a framing I think we should all keep in mind.
Dominance is carefully-chosen word, and his practical skillset as compared to Hughes is much more physical, with a much more weighty shot, much better board presence, and a kind of propensity to make straight-line, tough-to-defend plays that just push an opposing defense to its limits. Kakko is your net-front guy, your top-tier power forward who, oh yeah, can do pretty much whatever else he wants.
His hands are distinct from Hughes’s – less nuanced or aesthetically pleasing and instead more utilitarian: why put it through your legs, behind your back, and criss-cross a panicking d-man when you can just deke hard and demolish their ankles as they quake in their boots about the freight train bearing down on them? He’s still beautiful to watch however, capable of crafting slick plays and dancing through guys at his leisure, still gifted with all-league vision, and still just as prone to elevating his comrades out on the ice. It’s a different tendency however, and one way or another a real privilege to watch.
The bottom line though is that implicit in that kind of game, and this ties back into his heavy and direct style, is that he knows how to play against men. This is commonly cited as the reason he’s more ready to break right into The Show, but it also has had a demonstrable effect on his growth as a player . He thinks through sequences in the language of what will work as simply as possible, as quickly as possible. He moves faster (contrasting with Hughes’s slightly more agile operational speed) than seasoned veterans, he can push off guys with the kind of timing and body position that leaves those same gap-closers just corporally incapable of defending him, and he puts his full freight into every shot he takes. This bundle of advantages over Hughes is what, in my opinion, makes him a better fit for the Rangers. He’s a bit further along on the development curve, and that kind of leg up isn’t going to go away. In his prime he’ll be a league-wide talent capable of going toe-to-toe with every single opposing player (yes, including the McDavid, Dahlin, and Matthews level elite players) he’ll face, and for now he’ll storm into the league as a guy burning down the house at The Garden who’ll leave visitors squads on notice.
So here’s Jeff Gorton, sitting pretty at numero dos, not sure what to do (he actually has the easiest choice in the draft, and it’s not especially close). The New Jersey Devils just took Kaapo Kakko, and now he’s left with some lame consolation prize. He picks a player with the sight of the Prophet at Delphi, the hands of Antonio Stradivari, and the ability to move on his feet like a dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet. What a shame! What ever will we do?
That probably won’t happen, in any event. We’ll actually nab the best player in this draft, someone who would be getting more hype than Hughes if his name were Kaaptthew McKakkey, hailing from Saskatoon. He’s going to enable the Rangers to go far, to take on any team in the league, and he’s going to be the face of the franchise for a long, long, time. Still, Hughes isn’t half-bad either. Ah, the perks of having the second overall pick.