It’s officially NHL Draft season.
Steve Kournianos is an NHL Draft analyst and prospect expert who has studied both players extensively. He participated in a Q&A with MSGNetworks.com about the two young stars and breaks down the strengths of both players.
MSGNetworks.com: Let’s start off with Hughes, the player that many experts are predicting to be the No. 1 overall pick. What can you tell us about him? Is he on the level as some of the other No. 1 picks overall?
Steve Kournianos: Jack Hughes is a dynamic, American-born center who recently broke the all-time scoring mark of the U.S. National Team Development Program – the same program that graduated the likes of Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews. He’s an artist with the puck; one who is incredibly quick and agile and can explode into the offensive zone and expand the ice for his teammates. You can classify him as a pass-first playmaker, although his hands and advanced ability to score from in tight reveals a player who is just scratching the surface on his true potential. Concerns about his size are overstated – Kane’s measurements on draft day in 2007 are practically identical to Hughes – and Kane ran away with the Calder Trophy the season after being drafted.
I would say Hughes is one of the most advanced draft prospects we’ve seen in a decade or so. He’s been ticketed for the top of his draft class for several years, and for good reason. He’s the kind of prospect people will pay good money to see and be rewarded win or lose, which can’t be said about every recent first overall pick.
MSGNetworks.com: If you had to use a pro comparison for Hughes, who would you pick?
Steve Kournianos: Although I won’t go as far as to say he is on the level of a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, Hughes shares several similarities with them, namely Crosby’s elite edge work and hockey sense, and McDavid’s explosiveness and vision. His stickhandling is very close to Kane’s, but there aren’t many players past or present who can cleanly control the puck through traffic the way the Chicago star can. Hughes comes incredibly close though.
MSGNetworks.com: If Hughes is going No. 1, most experts have Kakko going No. 2. What should we know about the young Finn?
Steve Kournianos: Kakko is a strong, big-bodied winger with the agility and tight-quarter quickness of a smaller finesse forward. Goal-scoring is his best attribute, as his shot and release when coupled with his accuracy make for a devastating package. He recently set the under-18 goal-scoring record in Finland’s elite SM-Liiga with 22 tallies, surpassing the mark previously set by current Florida Panthers’ star Aleksander Barkov in 2013. Like Hughes, Kakko is an exceptional stickhandler in traffic, and he can control the flow of possession inside the offensive zone with sharp cuts, pivots and directional changes. What sets Kakko apart from all draft-age wingers is his positioning and ability to get into openings with the hammer cocked. His one-timer from the right circle at this stage of his development is equal to that of Alex Ovechkin’s or Patrik Laine’s during their respective draft years.
MSGNetworks.com: Who would be the closest pro comparison for Kakko?
Steve Kournianos: The knee-jerk comparison is to liken Kakko with fellow countryman Mikko Rantanen, who stars for the Colorado Avalanche. But I see him as a young Rick Nash – a bull of a forward who can shoulder away any defender regardless of size and wear out opponents during the cycle. The way Kakko slings pucks on net off the pass is similar to the likes of Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
MSGNetworks.com: How closely do you rate these players? Is there much of a difference between 1 and 2?
Steve Kournianos: I would say they are as close to tied as two top prospects can be, but Hughes holds a slight edge because of his dynamism. In my mind, both players will become stars and immediate impact players, and it won’t be long before people completely disregard how they were ranked or where the ended up on draft day.
MSGNetworks.com: Finally, the big question: if you were Devils general manager Ray Shero, who would you take No. 1 overall?
Steve Kournianos: Jack Hughes, although it won’t be an easy decision to make. With all due respect to the likes of Kirk Muller, Scott Gomez and Nico Hischier, the Devils never have had a franchise center who brings fans out of their seats and consistently is among the league’s scoring leaders. Hughes has that kind of potential.
[Follow Steve on Twitter: @TheDraftAnalyst]