June 5, 2019 | 7:50pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

DEVILS IN FAMILIAR SPOT AS DRAFT APPROACHES

 
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Ray Shero, GM

 
 

MONTREAL, QC – This spring has been somewhat of Déjà Vu for New Jersey Devils General Manager Ray Shero. For the second time in three years, the Devils’ ball came up for the right to select first in the upcoming NHL Draft in June. But although Shero and the Devils are in the same draft spot as they were two years ago, it is not the only, and most important, similarity.

Once again for Shero, the selection of No.1 is not as clear cut as the majority of drafts are.

In 2017, the Draft was dubbed as “Nico or Nolan,” as the two favorites to go first overall were Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. Patrick was the long standing projected first overall pick, going back to 2016. But after the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship, Hischier skyrocketed up the ranks of many scouts, ultimately overtaking Patrick and going first overall to the Devils.

Considering of how close the two players were leading up to the very moment of the first overall selection, the first pick was almost considered as a burden to have. The No.2 selecting team (the Philadelphia Flyers) simply had to select the player whom the Devils passed up on. No pressure right?

Fast forward two years and a similar situation is beginning to unfold as 2019 NHL Draft rapidly approaches.

Jack Hughes, who just turned 18 years of age May 14, has been at the top of the list of most NHL scouts for over a year. Having played the last two seasons in the USHL, the American has scored at over a two-point-per-game pace; having tallied 87 points in 42 regular season games.

Hughes’ dominance continued on the international stage and were on full display during the 2019 Ice Hockey u-18 World Championship. Finishing the tournament with 20 points in seven games, Hughes was first in scoring amongst all players and led Team USA to a Bronze Medal.

Despite all of Hughes’ dominance against his peers in a u-18 setting, his play at the 2019 World Hockey Championship in Slovakia has called his NHL-readiness into question. Hughes struggled immensely in the tournament against older, bigger players; being used sparingly for Team USA and finishing the tournament with just three assists in seven games.

While the sample size of just seven games is too small to judge Hughes on, his physical immaturity was noticeable. Standing at just 5’10, Hughes is not a big body to begin with. But beyond his height, which is becoming more and more common in the modern-day NHL, his weight of just 170lbs proves to be more of a challenge. Hughes clearly struggled to possess the puck against older and more mature competition during the tournament, and was not even remotely as dominant as he has been in past settings. Although this has not affected the opinions of most Scouting experts in terms of Hughes’ draft projection, it has closed the gap between him and Kaapo Kakko.

Kakko’s tournament was a completely different story. The 18-year-old Finnish born player was a key cog for Finland during the tournament; finishing with six goals (and one assist) in 10 games and a +10 rating on route to his country’s Gold Medal Victory.

Unlike Hughes, Kakko has been playing against men for the past year in the Finnish League SM-Liiga. In 45 games with TPS Turku this season, Kakko tallied 22 goals and 16 assists during the regular season. Kakko’s strong game continued during the playoffs, scoring at a point-per-game pace in five games (four goals and one assist).

Kakko’s physical stature is much more imposing than Hughes, and that is a driving factor in the difference of play against mature competition between the two. Kakko stands at 6’2 and is already 181lbs at the age 18. He was visibly unfazed physically during the WHC and seemed to fit in just right amongst the competition. This has led many experts to believe that Kakko is more NHL-ready than his American counterpart, hence igniting the debate of who will go first overall.

Despite all the recent debating on the topic, it seems as though it has not swayed Shero and the Devils away from selecting Hughes. This is probably the right decision. Hughes is a centreman, which, whether we agree or not, is automatically considered more valuable by most NHL executives.

The Devils could use the help up the middle, as Travis Zajac is no spring-chicken and it is unclear whether or not Pavel Zacha is more a winger or a centre. Having a Hughes-Hischier one-two punch is certainly enticing. Hughes has time to fill out physically, and the long-term benefit of grabbing a potential-franchise centre man is too sweet for the Devils to pass up on.

Either way, Shero has earned the benefit of the doubt on whom he’ll select. Hischier has proved to be (at least in the short term) the better selection; having scored 97 points in two NHL seasons compared to Patrick’s 61. But there is one difference this year as opposed to 2017: neither Hischier nor Patrick were considered to be franchise players.

Hughes and Kakko both project to be top-end players, so Shero must do his due diligence and cover all his bases before he steps up to the podium in Vancouver.

The Devils will be adding a significant piece to their club this June, no matter who they select. But you can bet that although they have the number two selection, the New York Rangers are more than happy to let their turn-pike counterpart make the tough selection.

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Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
Follow him on Twitter.