Did right wing Kaapo Kakko of TSP in Finland do enough this season to replace center Jack Hughes of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft?
The fact Kakko is even in the discussion is a testament to the competitive verve and ability he showed down the stretch and since scoring the game-winning goal for Finland against the United States in the gold-medal game of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Jan. 5.
Despite the push by Kakko, it appears NHL scouts remain steadfast in their support of Hughes, who could become the fifth NTDP player chosen No. 1 in the NHL Draft. The first round is Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
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In a poll conducted by NHL.com of 10 NHL scouts, Hughes came away with a 7-3 advantage.
"Hughes impacts the game in more ways, he's electrifying and, I think, the superior player," said Craig Button, TSN resident director of scouting, NHL analyst and former NHL general manager. "I think his skating is better, his hands are better, his creativity is better, and he's got more ice to work with in the position he plays.
"Look, Kaapo and Jack are two different players, and Kaapo wouldn't be able to play Jack's game and Jack wouldn't be able to play Kaapo's game."
Video: Hughes' confidence, skillset gives lasting impression
Button said Kakko reminds him of Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau and Hughes is reminiscent to Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman.
"Yzerman was 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds when he was drafted (No. 4 in the 1983 NHL Draft) by the Detroit Red Wings," Button said. "He was just this little centerman from Peterborough. I think the Red Wings thought they were going to get Pat LaFontaine, but he went one pick earlier (to the New York Islanders), so they got their man at No. 4."
Hughes (5-foot-10, 171 pounds), No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, averaged 21:00 of ice time in 50 games and had a team-leading 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists). He set NTDP records for assists (154) and points (228) in 110 games in two seasons with the program.
Kakko (6-2, 194), No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of International skaters, averaged 18:11 of ice time in 45 games for TPS, scoring 38 points and leading the team with 22 goals despite being the youngest player on the roster. His 22 goals set a record for a first-time draft-eligible player in Liiga, one more than the 21 Aleksander Barkov had for Tappara in 53 games in 2012-13.
"Kaapo is going to have to wait for the puck but Jack's going to have it," Button said. "To me, the player that has the puck more and can have more of a free-skating game, instead of playing on the wing, is going to have more of a chance to impact the game. Jack does that, he does it with his mind, he does it with skating and does it with his hands."
NHL.com sought the opinion of NHL scouts who have watched Hughes and Kakko this season. They promised honesty for anonymity.
Video: Jack Hughes on comparing his game to NHL stars
In favor of Jack Hughes
"How the [heck] are opponents supposed to know what he's going to do when even he doesn't know what he's going to do because he doesn't play a paint-by-numbers game. Jack looks at the canvas and says I'm going to put a blue sky here and sunrise over here. He keeps defenders on their heels and I can't tell you how many times I've seen him enter the zone backwards and turn sideways to create something. He impacts the game wherever he is on the ice, and he has the ability to be dangerous at the snap of your fingers."
"Right now, Kakko is more complete, but again Kakko is more of a physical specimen, too. In another 3-to-4 years, where is Hughes going to be because he's so dynamic and his speed kills? He does everything at such a high pace and is great in tight. Kakko might be more ready right now but at the end of the day, Hughes might be at an even higher level in three years."
"Hughes is a dynamic hockey player. He's skilled, his IQ is first-rate; he's the whole package. I think there's only a conversation between Hughes and Kakko now because of how Kakko played in April (at the IIHF World Championship) versus how Jack did with the U.S. team. I think it's close, but not the way people think it might be. Kakko could play in the League next year and be successful and Jack could struggle. But, I'm telling you now, in three years when Jack has the League figured out, he's going to be a special player."
In favor of Kaapo Kakko
"Kakko is not even a finished product yet and he's a lot bigger and physically more mature than Hughes. It's a tough call to me because they are both excellent hockey players. Hughes might be a little more high-end with hockey smarts, but Kakko has that too. I'd go Kakko."
"Kakko was incredible at the World Championship playing with and against NHL players. He took that Finnish team on his back; they don't win a gold medal without him. He showed he could skate, he could score and pass and there isn't a player in this draft who can protect the puck while on the offensive like he does."
"The best he played was in the Liiga playoffs when every other team said its only goal was to slow down an 18-year-old so that they could advance in the series. [Kakko] knows he's good and that's what his coach said as well, but he also expects a lot from himself."
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