The New Jersey Devils have an opportunity to select who they believe is the best player in the NHL Draft for the second time in three years and it likely will be either center Jack Hughes or right wing Kaapo Kakko.
New Jersey has 10 picks, including six selections in the first three rounds of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The first round is Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
"They're both tremendous players and will be impact players in the League as early as next season ... that's the plan," Devils director of amateur scouting Paul Castron said of Hughes and Kakko. "I'd say Hughes is more dynamic than Kakko, but Kakko is stronger at this stage in development."
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Hughes (5-foot-10, 171 pounds), of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team, was 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.
"His skating is so dimensional, and he makes it look so easy on his zone entries; it's like he doesn't even take a stride but just glides by people," Castron said of Hughes. "When the opposition dumps it in and his team goes back to retrieve it, he's already planned his escape route and his teammates know it too. You just hit him in stride and you're on the attack."
Video: Jack Hughes ranks No. 1 on Draft Prospects list
Kakko (6-2, 194) of TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional men's league, was No. 1 in Central Scouting's final ranking of International skaters. He averaged 18:11 of ice time in 45 games, had 38 points and led TPS with 22 goals despite being the youngest player on the roster. He set a Liiga record for most goals in a season by a first-time draft-eligible player, one more than Aleksander Barkov had for Tappara in 53 games in 2012-13.
"Kakko has man-strength and he's so strong down low," Castron said. "NHL defensemen had a hard time containing him at the (2019 IIHF) World Championship. He protects the puck so well, and he can create off those down-low cycles and take the puck to the net. He uses a very short stick but has good hands in traffic and is a good playmaker. I do find that guys using a short stick eventually go a little longer when they reach the NHL at some point."
Video: Kaapo Kakko lands at No. 2 on Draft Prospects list
The Devils moved up two spots to No. 1 after winning the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery on April 9. They moved up four spots to No. 1 after winning the 2017 Draft Lottery and selected center Nico Hischier.
Castron said he wouldn't mind having the opportunity to add another first-round pick if the opportunity presents itself.
"That's part of the preparation and the due diligence you have to do in sort of knowing not just who you would like to acquire but which teams are in that area and if there would be a potential marriage," Devils senior director of player personnel Dan MacKinnon said. "It's very difficult to move up significantly into the first round rather than just a few spots, but not impossible."
The Devils should be able to acquire top talent on the second day of a draft that appears to be deeper than years past. The Devils hold the Nos. 34, 55 and 61 picks in the second round.
"It seems to be forward heavy in the top 10 this year, but as you get through the mid-part of the second round, there's a real attractive distribution of all positions," MacKinnon said. "The one thing we said to our ownership group is we're excited to have three picks in the second round. We believe with the depth of this draft, at least through the first half of the second round and maybe beyond that, you could get a player who would likely be a first round-type player in a lot of other drafts. That's how good this draft is."
What type of player will the Devils be looking to select in those later rounds? Perhaps a few goal-scorers to make life easier for centers Hischier and, potentially, Hughes. Maybe a few more stay-at-home defensemen who play with pace and are physical will be in demand.
"There are a lot of skill guys in the [American Hockey League] who get a chance, but when they get it they don't have the compete level to stay in the NHL," Castron said. "We want to be fast, competitive and supportive, that's our identity. We're looking for competitive and skilled players, and not just checkers."
The Devils selected three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie in the 2018 NHL Draft, and six forwards, four defensemen and a goalie in the 2017 draft. The top two defensemen in the system are Ty Smith (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) of Spokane in the Western Hockey League and Jeremy Davies (5-11, 180) of Northeastern University in Hockey East. The top forward prospect, center Jesper Boqvist (6-0, 181) signed a three-year entry-level contract June 10.
"The demands with how we play and what we put on our players in terms of hockey sense, speed, compete and being hockey strong, are important to us," MacKinnon said. "With 10 picks in the draft, there is more room to maybe go off the board if you think there's someone there with a special quality who might be missing other things that may come up with development time."
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