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NHL Mock Draft 2019: New Jersey Devils Select Jack Hughes with No. 1 pick

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As the New Jersey Devils won the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery, we picked first in the annual SB Nation NHL Mock Draft. We selected center Jack Hughes of the United Stated National Team Development Program. This post contains our reasoning and other thoughts about the top pick this year.

Russia v United States: Quarter Final - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia
Jack Hughes warding off a defender as well as challengers for #1 overall this year.
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

For the second time in the franchise’s history in the Garden State, the New Jersey Devils won the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery and will select first overall. For the second time in this blog’s history, we picked first in the 2019 SB Nation NHL Mock Draft. Our pick was center Jack Hughes of the United States National Team Developmental Program.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jack Hughes, I direct you to read Brian’s prospect profile of Hughes. It provides a very good summary of why he has been the consensus #1 pick for this draft for over a year. His vision with the puck is elite or just about elite. His skating, particularly his edgework, is elite or just about there too. He set records in production with the USNTDP and at the World U-18 Championships. He was even invited and suited up for USA Hockey at the 2019 IIHF World Championship right after the World U-18s this year; he is the youngest ever American to play in in that tournament. He is everything you would want in a center. The only point of criticism is that he is not big, but at 5’10” and 170 pounds, he would be far from the smallest player in the NHL.

The only other player in the discussion for first overall this year is Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko. Let me be perfectly clear: If the Devils draft Kakko over Hughes, then I would be very happy too. Kakko is a fantastic prospect. He carved out a significant role with TPS in the Finnish Liiga, Finland’s top hockey league. He set a Liiga U-18 record for goals, breaking Aleksander Barkov’s record. He was a standout at the 2019 World Junior Championship and has been Finland’s top forward at the 2019 IIHF World Championship. He is big, his shot is fantastic, he moves well, and he does a lot of things really well. Kakko would be a definitive first overall selection in most draft years. This year is not one of them because of Hughes.

Hughes is such a clear-cut ace of a prospect that this was an easy decision for us. Granted, we had to make it in the middle of the World Championship where both players are playing. But one tournament was not going to make the difference for us, much less for scouts who have been watching both players for years. Unlike 2017 where there was a legitimate and close debate between Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, there was no real desire to debate it among the AAtJ writers I asked. There was no demand to have a roundtable like we did two years ago. This was straight forward: Hughes was the preferred pick for the Devils at #1. Some doubt may have creeped in and you may not agree, but we came to a conclusion for this pick rather quickly.

As for my own take, I asked and answered a few simple questions. Who is the better skater? That’s Hughes. His edgework alone is impressive and it allows him to make plays and recover from errors like few others. Who is the better facilitator? That appears to be Hughes. Kakko is no slouch in this regard, but Hughes has been the straw that stirs the offensive drink for two years with the USNTDP and virtually all scouts, team officials, and observers agree with that. The production justifies that too. Given that the New Jersey Devils have trended towards superior skaters with incredible skill, Hughes fits that mold just better than Kakko does. Again, if the actual pick turns out to be Kakko, then I will be happy because the Devils drafted an elite-level prospect. From my standpoint, though, I think it should be and will be Jack Hughes.

Since that was pretty brief, I want to address a couple of talking points that have emerged during the 2019 IIHF World Championship with respect to Hughes vs. Kakko.

On Size

Yes. You cannot teach size and Kakko already standing at 6’2” and 190 pounds helps him when size becomes a factor. He has handled physical play quite well. Hughes is not as tall and will definitely have to hit the steaks and weights this Summer.

However, I do not think this is much of a concern. Kakko also needs to fill out his frame more as well. And Hughes has played against larger and more physical players both in and above his age group - he is still here. Furthermore, bigger guys can get hurt just as easily as smaller players. Concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments, and so forth do not care about a player’s vitals. Both players would be wise to try to avoid taking a lot of hits. Both players know this. Being a significant player on their respective teams, opposing players know who they need to try and neutralize. Both players have more than managed.

By the way, since we’re all Devils fans, I will also remind you that the organization has had a variety of players contribute to the team that were officially listed with a height of 5’10” (Hughes’ height) or lower. These players include Aaron Broten, Brian Gionta, Brian Rafalski, Pat Verbeek, Sergei Brylin, Neal Broten, Mark Johnson, Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt, Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo, and Sami Vatanen. This selected group includes who have played in top-sixes, bottom-sixes, first pairings on defense, third pairings on defense, and even an “enforcer.” By Devils history alone, Hughes is not too small to make an impact on the team.

On Playing Against Professionals

Kakko has not just been amazing in 2018-19, but he did it in the Finnish Liiga. That is a professional league filled with fully-developed professional hockey players. Hughes has mostly played against his age group - who may or may not be professionals themselves - and exhibitions against college players who are older and more physically-developed but not professionals. Basically, Kakko has played against men and so that should give him an edge.

I know I’ve used that line of thinking before. That a prospect’s accomplishments should be seen as very impressive if they achieve it against people who have made a career out of playing hockey. That it is more impressive than players who do it in juniors or in college where they are not getting the professional experience.

However, the more I think about it, the less I think this is an actual plus. If playing in professional leagues as an U-18 or U-20 player was that much of a big deal, then why do we see some of those players not projected to go high in the draft? Why do they not get picked ahead of those who have played primarily in juniors? I went through the draft results at HockeyDB from 2000 until today to get some answers.

  • Out of the last 19 drafts, only four players went first overall that came out of a professional league: Kovalchuk in 2001, Ovechkin in 2005, Matthews in 2016 (he played in Switzerland in his draft year), and Dahlin in 2018. If I recall correctly, there was not a lot of competition from the projected or actual top picks out of junior or college leagues in those four drafts. They were slated to be the #1 pick no matter where they played.
  • Out of those last 19 drafts, I would argue in eight of those the top pick among players who have played against professionals was better than the top pick among players from a junior or college league. Those four players from the previous point are among those eight. The additional ones were Marian Gaborik over Rick DiPietro in 2000; Nicklas Backstrom over Erik Johnson in 2006, Hampus Lindholm over Nail Yakupov in 2012, and William Nylander over Aaron Ekblad in 2014. Not that the top picked player out of a pro league was a scrub, but more often than not, the junior-based player turned out to be better. Even then, there are some arguments that the top pick out of a professional league was not necessarily the best in the draft class even if they were better than first overall.
  • The most interesting year for Devils fans to look at is 2013. That year, Nathan MacKinnon emerged as the first overall pick ahead of then-consensus-for-most-of-2013 Seth Jones and Aleksander Barkov. Kakko’s goal scoring record for U-18 players in the Liiga broke the one set by Barkov in 2012-13. Barkov was also productive at the WJCs with three goals and four assists. In contrast, MacKinnon was in the QMJHL, he had one mere point in the WJCs that year, and his big claim was scoring by the buckets for Halifax as they went onto win their league and the Memorial Cup. Barkov was even bigger than MacKinnon too. However, MacKinnon went ahead of Barkov, he won the Calder in his first season, and he has broken out to be one of the best forwards in the game today. I like Barkov’s game a lot. But despite not playing against men and not performing well in the same international competition, MacKinnon was absolutely the right pick. I think this Hughes vs. Kakko thing is going to break down the same way.

In conclusion to this point, I am realizing that playing against professional players as a prospect is not necessarily a huge deal. The prospect still needs to be very talented and utilize that talent regardless of league. In the cases of Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Matthews, and Dahlin, they could have been playing Junior A hockey and their talents would have them be set for the first round. Going up against men can be seen as a plus. I do not think that alone it makes a prospect significantly better or should cause him to be picked higher. NHL teams have shown that; they are picking based on talent, skills, and the future - not their competition. Kakko playing in the Liiga is great for him but it is not going to be what makes him #1 over Hughes.

World Championships & International Competition

So Kakko has been styling and profiling at the 2019 World Championships for Finland. He has six goals and an assist in eight games. Hughes has just three points - all assists - in seven games. This is in a tournament filled with professionals. And in that Finland-United States game, did we not see Kakko just manhandle Hughes? This is happening months after Kakko put up three goals and two assists on Finland’s gold medal winning WJC; whereas Hughes just had the four assists as the US took bronze. Since Kakko has been more productive and impressive looking in tournaments where the two are both on the same stage, surely, that should make Kakko #1.

I also do not agree with this. Tournaments are a great platform to see how a player performs with different teammates and situations. They are also very short. Hockey is a game filled with variance and not a lot of conclusions can be made in six or seven games. Players get hot and cold. They also get hurt; Hughes was not 100% at the WJCs - and he still put up what he did. Playing well is always a plus but it does not necessarily show what a player can do for the future and/or at the next level.

I am also going to echo Todd Cordell’s post at Hockeybuzz a week-plus ago about the World Championships. Finland’s team is largely devoid of NHL talent and Kakko skipped the World U-18s to train with the WC team. He has been prepared for big minutes on a team where no one was really going to usurp his role. Kakko has taken advantage of these minutes and has been productive - even if those goal totals are juiced by a couple of empty netters and schooling a Denmark team that is even less talented. He still managed to play strong on the puck as Finland went all the way to the Gold Medal.

Hughes, on the other hand, is reelgated to a depth position. USA Hockey’s forward group is loaded with not only NHL players but really good ones and Luke Glendening, who plays for Jeff Blashill, who is also USA’s head coach for this tournament. The opportunities to show off what he can are not there for Hughes, especially when Blashill & Co. limit him to fewer than ten minutes. Hughes was a standout in the USA’s game against Russia in the knockout stages, which makes his limited usage more baffling in retrospect. (As does this clip of highlights, come on, van Reimsdyk, finish the drills. Thanks to HallisLove for linking to it in the WC Open Post.) Even so, one great game or six ho-hum games do not change the fact that Hughes and Kakko have been in very different situations in this tournament. Of course the performances will look very different too. Basically, this is like comparing strawberries and blueberries.

And, again, it is a 3-week tournament at most. Seven to ten game runs for two players, who are not being used in the same way, are not going to be the deciding factor for teams who have scouted both players for years. As a post-script, Kakko may have had Hughes in a brief headlock, but Kakko was still kept to the outside in part by Hughes’ pressure.

On Immediate Need

The Devils finished 29th last season. They are not in a position to be choosy about what they need. The Devils need help at both center and right wing. Kakko and Hughes have played well over 70 games in 2018-19 between their domestic and international teams. Both are ready to go to the NHL. Either Kakko or Hughes will be immediately put into the line up in a significant role. Either one will fit. No one really fits better than the other. If you desire a center though, I suggest taking the one who has played center just about all season long rather than the one who could play it but has been largely successful at wing.

On Our Hated Rivals

I did not care about Philadelphia in 2017. I do not care about Our Hated Rivals now. They are a non-factor in this discussion.

Your Take

I reiterate that if the real pick by the Devils is Kakko, then I will be happy. But in this mock draft, our choice was Jack Hughes. My justifications for the pick are in the reasons outlined in this post. Will we be right? History has not been kind to most of our mock draft picks, but we did nail it in 2017 (thankfully).

However, I encourage you to give us your take on our mock draft pick. Would you pick Hughes or Kakko? Why? Please let us know in the comments and/or even vote in our poll. We will find out what the Devils will do in the actual 2019 NHL Entry Draft on June 21. Thank you for reading.

Post-script: Check out the 2019 SBN NHL Draft hub for coverage throughout the network for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Poll

Our pick in the 2019 SBN NHL Mock Draft was Jack Hughes. Do you agree with our pick?

This poll is closed

  • 66%
    Yes.
    (1164 votes)
  • 32%
    No, it should have been Kaapo Kakko.
    (568 votes)
  • 1%
    No, it should’ve been someone else other than Kakko. (Please specify in comments)
    (31 votes)
1763 votes total Vote Now