To Hughes or not to Hughes?
That is the question?
With the National Hockey League’s Annual Entry Draft just around the corner, the spotlight will center on Jack Hughes, the enormously talented American, and The Finnish Flash, Kaapo Kakko.
Heading into the homestretch, my random poll clearly indicates that New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero will pluck Hughes.
The fascinating sidebar to the Hughes Saga is that he’ll become one of the few Jewish players in the NHL since his mother, Ellen, is Jewish.
Ellen, by the way, has had quite an athletic background. She’s in the University of New Hampshire’s Sports Hall of Fame for both hockey and soccer.
Jack, himself, is a multi-sport athlete. As he puts it, “I was a pretty good baseball player, and if I put as much time as I did into hockey into golf, I could be a pretty good golfer. And if I wanted to do something smart, I could probably do that, too.”
One of his wisest moves was becoming part of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. In addition to Hughes, at least six of his teammates are expected to be claimed in the Entry Draft’s first round.
“A lot of nights with Jack,” one NHL scout enthuses, “he’s a smaller version of Connor McDavid.”
“He’s smart,” The Hockey News reports in its capsule scouting report on Hughes. “Jack also is funny and he’s real good at hockey. He’s the player we’ve all been waiting for.”
True; all true but since the recent World Championships concluded, Kakko has kayoed some of the hoopla over Hughes.
“Kakko could be the best Finnish prospect ever,” notes The Hockey News panel.
Picking second, the Rangers are playing with house money; general manager Jeff Gorton cannot go wrong no matter what his opposite, Shero, happens to do.
If Ray opts for Hughes that would make Joltin’ Jack the first player to jump from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program directly to the NHL.
How good is this unique fellow? No less an expert than scouting guru Craig Button who puts it this way:
“Hughes could be superior to every other (draft eligible) player in every skill attribute.
“The only thing he’s not better than other players with is his shot. And that can be improved. Otherwise, he’s better than everybody.”
That’s one man’s opinion, of course, and it’s up against those who favor the Finn, who’s bigger, more experienced and more NHL ready.
Wisely, Kaapo has studied NHL styles with an Argus’ eye and offers this self-analysis:
“My style is similar to [Maple Leafs ace] Auston Matthews. As for Finnish players, Mikko Rantanen is someone who I look up to. I actually try to copy some of his moves.”
During the recently completed Worlds tourney, Kakko dazzled with his footwork, stick work and shooting. His spectacular goals were the likes that press agents dream about. By comparison, Hughes’ work was pedestrian.
On the Rangers side, GM Gorton is doing the right thing; keeping his decision-making “Mum” along with his bosses, John Davidson and Glen Sather.
“I hear the same names over and over in the top-2,” says Gorton. “But we’re lucky that the Lottery was moved up to an earlier date. It gave us a chance to go to the World Under-18s, see some players and go to the World Championship and see other guys.
“The timing was good for us; allowing us to go through our process and talk to the players, their families, everybody around them and then make our decision.”
As for decisions, among the media, they are a dime a dozen. Leo Scaglione, Jr. who does scouting reports on MSG Networks Devils’ telecasts, puts it this way:
“You ask me who will be picked first and I have the perfect answer — flip a coin!”
In Hughes’ case, some of his supporters fear a build-up to a letdown. Unlike Kakko, Jack has been featured in every imaginable hockey show; his face adorns The Hockey News‘ Draft Preview edition while Kaapo’s mug didn’t even make a cameo pix in the cover’s corner.
Yet, over and over, respected scouts underline one cogent point; Hughes should be Number One.
“When you’re talking about potential,” one scout insists, “it’s not a landslide for Hughes, but it’s definitive. Jack’s potential is huge. He’s an elite skater, an elite thinker and an elite skill player. He has the ability to process and execute at high speeds.”
But the Kakko Marching and Chowder Society have plenty of highlights to support their guy’s claim for the top spot.
For one thing, he set a Finnish record for goal-scoring by an Under-18 player. He also scored the golden gold for Finland at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver; not to mention his more recent histrionics at the World Championships.
“Kakko is NHL ready,” another scout insists. “He has everything you want. He defends well, strong down low, has the creativity and a finishing touch. Add to that he’s strong for his age and has some feistiness.”
Should Hughes go first, the Rangers still will be smiling. For starters, the Blueshirts will boast yet another young stud ready to adorn their lineup. His smarts and size will delight the citizens of Rangerville.
Assuming that the Finn is chosen second, he will be on the same rung as other runners-up such as Tyler Seguin, Gabe Landeskog, Patrik Laine and Jack Eichel, just to name a few.
It has been suggested that Kakko and Laine have distinctly similar attributes. Actually, the two skated together last Summer so Kaapo can offer a firsthand view.
“Nobody can shoot like Patrik,” Kakko said. “I’ve scored goals, but my goals come from a closer range.”
And so, the comparisons will be argued through the night and right up until Shero walks to the microphone and makes his pick.
In answer to the question, “To Hughes or not to Hughes?” don’t laugh; the answer just might be Kakko!
Hey, you never know.
But, by now, you can bet that Shero does!