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FEATURE: Hughes or Kakko? Now Devils get to decide

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are the top two talents in this year's NHL Draft. With the first pick, New Jersey has to decide who is the best fit

by Peter Robinson / Special to newjerseydevils.com

They call it a lottery for a reason and Devils GM Ray Shero sounded like a man who had won a jackpot he was not expecting on Tuesday night. 

Barring something unforeseen, the prize is either Jack Hughes, a slick centre with the U.S. National Development Team, or Kaapo Kakko, a right-shot winger who often plays the left side with TPS in his native Finland. 

"You try and do everything with all the players that you draft but especially with the No. 1 pick," said Shero. "When you get (the No. 1 pick), it's special."

Hughes has been slotted into the No. 1 position for roughly two years and though the final evaluation and selection still needs to take place, he has not wilted under the intense glare. 

"A skilled player but (Hughes) is also an unselfish player," said Shero. "You see it in the way he handles himself, the way he interacts with his teammates."

Comparisons can be difficult but it's not unreasonable to cite the Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Kane, or the Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner as an example of the type of player Hughes could become. For Kakko, his countryman Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets is a rough comparable but it's thought that Kakko is a little less a sniper than Laine, and more a playmaker. 

"I haven't seen Kakko as much but he's special too," said Shero. 

If there is a concern about Hughes, it's his size. He's about 5'10" and 165 pounds, small by even college/junior standards. The Orlando, Fla., native acknowledged the physical challenges faces turning pro in his television interview before the lottery took place. 

"I'm 17 years old," he said on the Draft Lottery broadcast, "I have some growing to do." 

Hughes, who will turn 18 six weeks before the June 21-22 NHL Draft in Vancouver, has never been held back by his slight frame. It's worth noting that his brother, Quinn Hughes, had to answer similar questions ahead of last year's draft before he was selected by the Vancouver Canucks, with whom he made his NHL debut last week. 

It was Shero who made probably the most salient point about Hughes and Kane, who some perceived as too small before being selected No. 1 overall in 2007. 

"Patrick Kane wasn't very big," said Shero, of the Blackhawks superstar, "Now, I'm not comparing (Hughes with Kane) but Kane is going to the Hall of Fame."

With Hughes poised to go No. 1, or even if he falls to second overall, it will mark another American player taken at the top of the NHL Draft that has come through the U.S. National Development program. Hughes is now that program's most prolific scorer and heads a group of professional prospects considered the best crop to ever emerge from the Michigan-based talent pool. 

By contrast, Kakko has shown few problems playing against seasoned professionals in his country's top pro league. Whatever the path to get to what is expected to be a 1-2 selection in Vancouver on June 21, Hughes and Kakko will arrive seasoned players. 

"You've seen it with the U.S. program, they likely have their best team right now," said Shero, before adding: 

"Finland, they've got a great (system) too. It's a different type of hockey, bigger ice but Kakko will have come through a great program."

Shero stressed Tuesday night the need to continue the forward momentum he believes the Devils have created, despite missing the playoffs. The words culture and commitment were used repeatedly, as elements that the organization can control and continue to foster. 

As for the good fortune the Devils couldn't control but bounced their way on Tuesday night, Shero was more succinct:

"Top players want to play with other top players and we now know we are going to get another one of those top guys."

The World Under-18 Championship starts next week in Sweden, followed by the World Championship that next month in Slovakia. Shero pointed out that with the lottery being held a month earlier, the evaluation process now becomes clearer with teams knowing exactly where they are selecting in the opening round. 

Hughes is slated to play for the U.S. at the U-18s and could play at the senior worlds that follow. Kakko is not expected to play in the U-18s but will suit up for his country in the worlds, raising the possibility that the top two prospects could face each other one last time. 

Back in January, Kakko banged in the winning goal in the waning moments of the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver, as Finland skated away with a tight 3-2 win over Hughes and the U.S.

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