BUFFALO — Yes, the World Championships did make some people think twice. The terrific performance from Finland’s Kaapo Kakko did make some people doubt who the Devils might take with the No. 1-overall selection in the draft — and therefore, who the Rangers might get with No. 2.
But as the NHL Combine comes to a close here this weekend, the consensus remains that New Jersey general manager Ray Shero is still going to take Jack Hughes with the top pick when that time comes on June 21 in Vancouver.
An anonymous poll by The Post of numerous people in and around the league led to the conclusion that Kakko’s performance for his Finnish team that won the gold medal at the international men’s competition in Slovakia this past week did raise his stock. It solidified what Kakko himself said during the tournament, that he and Hughes were “pretty even.”
But the most common refrain pointing toward Shero taking Hughes was their shared nationality. Shero and Devils coach John Hynes have very strong ties to the U.S. Developmental program that Hughes is coming from, and that seems to be the tipping point.
“Good, American hockey family,” is how one NHL coach emphasized his guess on Hughes going first.
Hughes, who just turned 18 years old on May 14, had long been thought of as the lock to go top overall. He is a terrifically talented offensive center, thus far mitigating his frame of 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. His older brother, Quinn, was taken No. 7-overall a year ago by the Canucks. Their father, Jim, had been a captain at Providence, an assistant coach for the Bruins, a director of player development for the Maple Leafs — and was recently hired to work for CAA, the most influential player agency that will represent Jack. Even their mother, Ellen, played on the women’s silver-medal winning hockey team in the 1992 World Championships.
“Just hard to see them passing,” said one league scout who spent the week up here at the combine, interviewing players that included Hughes but not Kakko, who decided to stay back in Finland after extensive travel. Kakko’s absence from the combine was universally dismissed as unimportant to his draft status, just as it wasn’t overly important that Hughes was here to go through the cursory 20-minute interviews with each team.
One of the common phrases that got knocked around while Kakko was playing a prominent role for his Finnish team in the Worlds, scoring six goals in 10 games, was that he was “NHL ready.” Standing 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Kakko spent the past 13 months winning three international tournaments for Finland — the under-18, the under-20, and then the men’s World Championships, only the seventh player in history to win all three.
“With that type of impact at such a young age,” said one prominent agent, “I would have a tough time passing on Kakko.”
Yet as one front-office person pointed out, there might be still more upside for Hughes down the line. There was a tempered comparison to the Flames Johnny Gaudreau, who was also thought of as undersized when he fell all the way to the fourth round in 2011 before excelling at Boston College and becoming one of the most dynamic players in the league — despite being 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds.
“[Hughes] is more advanced than Johnny was at this age,” the scout said, before quickly adding, “but who knows.”
Then there is the resonating comments from one of the best American players of all time, Patrick Kane, who recently stated, “I think [Hughes] does a lot of things better than me.” There might have been a little bit of national pride in that comment, but nationality does play a role in evaluating players.
It is very unlikely that with two such highly touted prospects at the top of the draft that either the Devils or Rangers would consider trading their picks. The return would have to be monumental.
So odds are that Hughes and Kakko will be taken to Mulberry Street and Broadway, and likely in that order. And in the words of another agent who agreed with that scenario, “Either way, both teams are getting great players.”
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