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.

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  • Dinosaur? lol

    Anyway, why the Devs will pick Hughes:

    Centers win Cups.
    Hughes is a near generational talent, franchise player for sure.
    Hughes is American, important for the Devs selling tix.
    Hynes got to see Hughes up close and personal, by coaching the US at the recent Worlds.
    When given better linemates, Hughes started to put up pts in that tourney.
    GM Shero and Highes’ dad are best friends.
    Hughes and Taylor Hall work out together in the offseason.
    Devs want to sign Hall long-term, getting Hughes would help a lot.

      • Good to see that the site is down to 5 idiots, most of the Blushirt Banter clowns must be back on basketball.

        But yeah, no doubt that Devils take Hughes.

        I just have concerns that he can be effective as a centre; both short term & long term.

        He’s gonna put up points and he has no problems getting back, it’s about that 2ppg going down to 1.10 instead of 1.25.

  • Off topic, the STL newspapers erroneously ran a letter from the owner to the fans after the won the Cup.

    Oops, jinxed much? Blues get plastered 5-1 at home. So now they have to win Game 7 in Boston.

    You can’t make it up.

  • Kakko will fit in nicely on a 2nd or 3rd line wing. He needs some schooling on the NHL game. Hughes needs a year or 2 to grow into the NHL center he will eventually become. You cannot go wrong with either pick.

    • Kakko would’ve scored 50 pts last year in the NHL.

      Is that a 2nd-3rd line winger?

      Put him with Ziba & Kreider and their goal totals will jump by 10-15 because the other team’s defensive shape to break.

      • And you know this how? Stop reading the press clips and let the young man play in the NHL for a game or 2. I suppose Kraftsov would have scored 25 too. Did Kriedert even score 50 points?

        • I’ve seen him live 4 times this year(1 Liiga, 3WM), once last year in Jr. A.

          So I wipe my tush with your press clippings.

          • Reen

            Loved that last line, LOL!!!!!!!!!! Can’t wait to see him in a Blue Jersey!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • Since the 2005 lockout, there have been eleven forwards chosen #1. All have immediately played in the NHL and they have averaged 56.5 points in their rookie years. [I did adjust Yakupov’s 31 to 53 because of the shortened season – I did NOT make an injury adjustment for McDavid.]. Kakko is viewed as someone who would be a #1 in many years and I suspect is viewed as perhaps more immediately ready for elite play than Hughes.

          50 points is simply not optimistic for such a player. If you could guarantee that Kakko would be either the best Ranger forward next year or the seventh best Ranger forward, I would bet on him being the best.

          JFTR, of the last 14 forwards picked #1 overall, I would only not classify Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, Hischler as elite – and certainly the jury is still out on Hischler.

  • We are sitting in the cat seat when it comes to the draft. We can’t make a bad choice, either will be great in their own way.

    Having said that, given a choice, I want Kakko. After reading, and more importantly watching him play, I’m literally salivating at the thought of him, Kravs,with the possibility of getting Kalitov, and the rest of the kids coming up, man does the future look great. Led by Kreider, we have a great opportunity facing us.

    Just look at the two teams in the finals now, both are big, strong, skilled, and did I mention they are big. Last years Cup winners were also very big. That’s the kind of team JG is going to put together, and Kakko is going to be the bedrock of the foundation for years to come. The kid is so skilled, has speed, will be another great net front presence, and is strong as a bull, who is still growing. Bottom line, let next season start already, Kakko is going to be dynomite, and will be fun to watch for year to come!!!!!!!!

  • In fact…does JG have the hair on his ass to take Zegras? all accounts have him as a first line center in the NHL

    • It is behind a pay wall but Pronman’s article entitled “Why Kappo Kakko Could Be Considered The No. 1 Pick in The Draft” was written even before Kakko’s dominant performance.

      He goes on to say in the opening paragraphs:

      “Kaapo Kakko has been phenomenal in Finland for the past two years, establishing himself as a premier prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft.

      Today we’ll look at why he’s in the conversation as one of the top two in this draft class, why some teams would consider him with the No. 1 pick and what he brings to an NHL team.


      Kakko is a very skilled and smart player, and he can do impressive things with the puck, but his mentality and the hard elements of his game are what make him different.

      I’ve seen highly skilled players like Kakko before. What I don’t typically see are 17-year-old forwards with his skill who can win pucks from grown men consistently…”

    • Then you must not have read Pronman

      Kakko has done nothing but impress over the past two seasons. It’s hard to pick apart his play or skill set given what he’s shown at the international and pro levels. He’s given every indication he can be a star forward in the NHL and, given what he’s done versus men already, every indication he could step in right away next season and make a seamless transition into a top-nine, if not a top-six forward role.

      The question on Kakko is if he’s dynamic enough to rise to the level of a true superstar, a guy who can define a franchise. I think there is reasonable doubt there, but from what he’s done this season at one of the highest levels of hockey, it is certainly possible. I know more than one team who would take him over Hughes, citing that Kakko’s skill set and the way he plays will translate better to the NHL.

      I would not bet currently on him reaching the highest echelons of production in the NHL, but I can see him in the very next tier. In that sense, I see him as a roughly comparable prospect talent-wise to Andrei Svechnikov at this time last season, except with added value given what Kakko’s proven versus men

  • Prior to the Worlds Pronman said Kakko was highly likely to go at least 2nd but it was not a slam dunk. After the worlds Pronman indicated it is almost a certainty that Hughes and Kakko are the first 2.

    Hughes is a generational talent, Kakko is not but is likely better than the 1st selection most years. Hughes is going first. Kakko is a great second option for the Rangers, but he is not Hughes. And given Hughes’ pleasant outgoing personality (vs. the more robotic-like McDavid, McKinnon and Crosby) Hughes could well be the face of the league in five or so years.

    • Hughes has had elite production, but I wouldn’t call it generational.

      Gretzky was scoring near a 3ppg pace before he went pro; THAT’S generational.

      Turcotte was right behind Hughes in a ppg pace, so the odds of having 2 elite players at a similar pace are much better than those 2 players both being generational.

      Your average NHLer probably averaged over 1ppg rate against their own cohort(barring D) their draft year.

  • I’d be absolutely shocked if Hughes was not picked first. But Kakko will be an excellent player too. Pronman has him at No. 2 and Turcotte at No. 3.

  • Hughes is the generational talent. We will not get him. Kakko/Strome/Kraftsov may be a pretty good second line. Still need to add Panarin to the mix and upgrade the defense.

  • If Zegras and Turcotte are future #1 centers its something to think about…..Kakko started out the wiffle ball tournament like gangbusters but then fizzled. 2 ENG and not many if any assists. I hope NJ gets spooked and takes him

      • True….but I hear 1st line NHL center and i get warm and fuzzy lol ….Steve Kournianos raising the question to Chicago at 3….Does Bowman ask himself will i ever get a chance to draft a Byram again or will I ever get a chance to draft a Turcotte or Zegras again…So that tells me he is ok with any of those guys at the 3 spot

    • The Finland team had no NHL players for the Wiffle Ball tourney, Kakko scored against Canada at evens.

      Calling the Wiffle ball tourney a reasonable proxy for the NHL, Kakko projects out as a 56 point player as a draft eligible player.

  • Everything I’ve read puts Hughes and Kakko well ahead of anyone else in the draft. Either one of them fills a need for either the Devils or the Rangers. Like Pat says, the Devils’ lineup of centers isn’t very awe inspiring, but, beyond Mika, who do the Rangers have? Put Hughes behind Mika, with Kravstov ,and move Chytil to wing, and I think I’ll be happy. OTOH, drafting Kakko, putting him on the second line with Kravstov, and Chytil at center , works for me too. It’s no lose situation.

      • Probably right but from a development perspective we should try Chytil at center. It’s his natural position. For all his talent flashes he wasn’t great at wing. And with Kakko, Kravtsov and Buch on right wing there is more of a need at center. We need to figure out where the young talent is going, and what we have.

  • I’ve been on board the Kakko train since the beginning of the year. I don’t care what people say about Hughes, I want Kakko. The kid works his tail off every shift, never gives up on the puck and plays a hard game. He controls and drives every play, he’s like Kravtsov only twice as good/talented — put Chytil between these two and you’ll see the future of the Rangers. He’s got a man’s body but should develop even further — resign Kreider and have the two workout all summer, the kid will be a beast. Sure I love Hughes too, but some day the kid is going to get flattened … and flattened … and flattened. I just feel more comfortable with Kakko. People here always whine about size, well here’s your size wrapped up in talent. This is 100 point player waiting to happen.

    … but Hughes would be just as good, only different.


    … and we still have Namestnikov who can slot in on the 3rd line, Boo on the 4th.

      • I think he’ll find a home on the 3rd line soon enough … could be wrong but something tells me one of Kreider, Strome, Vesey or Namestnikov could be gone by the next trade deadline (or the draft/training camp).

    • I have to agree 100% with your post above. The thought of the three kids skating together for years to come is so comforting!!!!

      Now if Panarian comes along as well, not sure that will happen, then Buch goes to the third line, scoring from three very good lines, and a nice shut down one as well!!!!

      • I don’t know Walt, I think for this coming year that forward lineup looks fine … as guys mature or fade out (Fast, Kreider, Vesey, Strome) we can tinker with a UFA or two … but Panarin at $11m for 7 years with a NMC (you know he’ll want that) just seems like a $1m more than I would spend per year and 1 more year than I would like. I would really hate to see Buch not get Top 6 minutes, seems like a waste — and I would hate to trade him, but if you bring in Panarin maybe that’s what has to be done … in which case I want something real good in return. Otherwise maybe it’s Kravtsov that moves down to the 3rd line … we have a lot of flexibility here.

        • Like I said, I don’t think it will happen, but Panarin is a LW, Buch is a RW, and they would not have to move anyone other than maybe Kravs, who I’d like to see stay with the other kids. Just thinking what we could look like in a couple of weeks. All the dust will settle soon enough, and then we can discuss who plays with who!

  • Projection
    Turcotte is one of the most simple player evaluations you’ll see. He’s a center without any clear flaws who does everything you want at a high-end level and has had massive production. If he had stayed healthy all season, I’m confident he’d have monster numbers and been considered one of the most productive NTDP players ever.

    Turcotte’s value to an NHL team will be his versatility. He could be the best play-driver on a line due to his speed and skill. He could run your power play off the flank, or be a net-front nuisance if your team demands it. Despite his great hands and vision that may be suited for a half-wall player, Turcotte told me he finds his game is best suited for the net-front and below the goal line.

    He projects as an 18-20 minutes a night No. 1 center who will be a fan favorite due to how hard he plays and how much he produces.

    Sorry Corey lol…I am a subscriber tho

  • Projection
    Teams looking to draft Zegras are not picking a guy hoping to get an elite burner like Hughes or Alex Turcotte, who is going to run over guys on his way to the net. You are drafting Zegras with the intention of finding your first power play unit QB for the next decade. He is going to be the player who will get the puck to his team’s goal-scorers.

    He may not have had the most elite production this season (although he produced very well), but he looked so good so consistently. He showed very often why his playmaking ability is elite and attributes that will translate to the higher levels.

    Zegras projects as a first-line forward at the NHL level, whether at center or on the wing, who will be an elite presence on the power play.

  • Right now from what I am reading is that Pronman has Hughes Kakko Turcotte Zegras Byram in the elite category then its very good….I loved Cozens at one point…Pronman has him at the only very good level

    • I’m not even sure Byram is a 1st pair player, let alone running a power play. Gets caught flatfooted too much for my liking.

      I’ve been really down on the WHL going back 5-6 years. Those things shouldn’t happen from year to year, but it’s to the point where the Q might be a better pool right now.

      Dach, Cozens, Krebs are all middle 6 players at best, Cozens is a too light version of Chris Gratton without the production. Krebs has the best upside(or did until his Achilles got partially severed.)

  • Pronman just updated his list

    Special/Elite NHL talent

    Special/Elite bubble
    2. Kakko

    Elite NHL Prospect/Star NHL Player
    3 .Turcotte
    4. Byram
    5. Caufield

    Elite/ High End Bubble
    6. Zegras
    7. Cozens

    High end NHL prospect
    8. Boldy
    9. Broberg
    10. Dach

  • “If I need to be the poster boy for defending the bike lanes, I will absolutely do that,” the notorious scrapper told The Post. “We need to be able to just bike in freedom.”

    A quote from Sean Avery in court for hitting a car that was parked in a bike lane. The guy is really a loon!!!!!!!

  • I do not comment too often on these types of articles because I really don’t follow prospects too closely. It seems Pronman has been anointed the be all, end all of the prospect end of the pool. To that end, does anyone know his track record? How did he do last year? before that? 5 years ago?

    • Pronman is the most informative and detailed commentator on prospects in media. And he is constantly getting better at it. Also he crosschecks his evaluations against a number of professional scouts. Is he right all the time, of course not. And projecting the ultimate careers of 18 years old prospects is always a bit of a crap shoot. One thing I like about Pronman is he is very open to discussing when his forecasts are off and why – learning from previous misses.

      Pronman is very high on Kakko, just thinks he is a step below Hughes. Basically Hughes has two big factors that separate him from KK – playing center – a position deemed more valuable than wing, and elite skating – for all his highlight goals Kakko is not considered an elite skater like Hughes. Of course KK has some advantages over Hughes – size and grit most notably.

  • I would be calling the debbies asking them what it would take from us to get that one spot. Keep the two and draft them both.

    Then gorton can claim godhood and retire.

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