No-one can ‘AccHughes’ Devils of Showing their Hand Early

The debate regarding who the New Jersey Devils will take first in the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver has been heating up. The choice between US phenom Jack Hughes and Turun Palloseura stud Kappo Kakko looks less clear cut now than it did previously. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the decision awaiting the Devils. I suggest that Hughes remains the choice that Devils fans should hope for, despite Kappo’s showing at the IIHF Worlds.

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Long-Term over Short-Term

There are two key factors that have raised the possibility of Kakko being the first overall selection. The first is that his pre-NHL experience has seen him take to the ice against grown men. This is opposed to the junior system that Hughes cut his teeth into. Kakko fans rightly point out that this, combined with his size, places him perfectly to slot into an NHL lineup on opening night. The second is his play at the World Championships, demonstrating this ability. 

While valid points, both upsides belie that the style of play the Finn is used to is a world apart from the NHL. Not to discount Kakko’s hockey IQ or ability to make space, but he will still require a period of adjustment to settle into the uptempo and hard-hitting pace of the modern NHL. What we’re seeing in the Worlds right now is a small sample size. It can’t genuinely be considered a best-on-best tournament. This is due to several players opting to sit out, and others battling for the Stanley Cup. It would be naïve to think that lighting it up in such a small run of games factors in for both Ray Shero or Paul Castron, New Jersey’s Director of Amateur Scouting.

Eyes on the Prize Size

It’s not in dispute that Hughes biggest challenge is his size.  His 170lbs/77kg, 179cm/5’10” frame is way off Kakko’s 190lbs/86kg, 187cm/6’2” bulk, but the modern NHL is more about speed than size. The other key factor he brings to the Devils is valuable depth up the middle. In a scenario where they draft Hughes, the Devils see their top lines centered by him and Hischier. That one-two punch gets support from Travis Zajac acting as a mentor as he ages out. This sees the Devils have the linchpin of their offense in place now and for the foreseeable future. This is of particular importance with the question mark hanging over the ability of Pavel Zacha to produce. Perhaps that added competition helps Zacha elevate his game, slotting into the third line. While it’s true the Devils could do with help on the wings, the need isn’t immediate…for now.

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The Hall Question

Which brings me on to the crux of why I believe the Devils opt for Hughes in the draft.  While details available are scant, it’s known that Hughes has trained with Taylor Hall in the summer months. Hall has a foundational relationship with him, knows how he plays and has a degree of chemistry from the off. This has to influence the teams decision. The Hall contract is a gauntlet to negotiate this year. Although having two very promising options at center to complement his scoring ability can’t hurt. There can be little doubt that Ray Shero has at least consulted Hall on what move the Devils should make.  

Ceiling the Deal

While not delving into the specifics of comparable statistics, one needs to consider the records broken by Hughes on his way to being touted as first overall. At the U18 worlds, Hughes put Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel, Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Clayton Keller in his rearview before finally toppling Alexander Ovechkin off the number one spot for points total. The company in that list alone gives an indicator of what Hughes is going to be capable of at the NHL level. There’s no dispute that whichever ends up going first is going to be a huge boost to their team. But it is a debate over which of the two has a higher ceiling. Either way, the dilemma of who to choose is a very good one for both the Devils and Rangers fans.

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