BUFFALO -- Kaapo Kakko of HC TPS in Liiga believes he has narrowed the gap between himself and Jack Hughes of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team as the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 21-22.
"We have a lot in common," Kakko said. "We're both very skilled players. His skating looks so good, and he has a great stride. Other than that, we're pretty even."
Kakko, a 6-foot-2, 194-pound right wing, is expected to be selected by the New York Rangers, who hold the No. 2 selection in the NHL Draft. Hughes, a 5-10, 170-pound center, is expected to go to the New Jersey Devils, who hold the No. 1 pick. The Chicago Blackhawks have the No. 3 selection.
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Despite being the youngest player on the roster, Kakko, who turned 18 on Feb. 13, scored 38 points and led TPS with 22 goals. 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.
Kakko had seven points (six goals, one assist) to help lead Finland to a gold medal at the 2019 IIHF World Championship and is not attending the NHL Scouting Combine this week because he's home in Finland celebrating the victory. The 18-year-old also won a gold medal for his country at the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship and the 2019 World Junior Championship.
Hughes, who had 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists) in 50 games for the NTDP, led the United States to a bronze medal at the 2019 IIHF World Under-18 Championship after scoring a tournament-high 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists).
Kakko, No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of International skaters eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft, spoke to NHL.com about his season and his future in an interview while at the World Championship.
Here are Five Questions With … Kaapo Kakko:
Do you feel you have closed the gap between you and Jack Hughes of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft?
"I think so. The teams have their needs and preferences. Jack is a very talented player and an excellent skater. That's all I can say. Me? I'm good in the offensive zone, I can score and create chances, and am good with the puck. I guess those are my strengths. Hopefully I'm ready for the (NHL). I still have a lot of work to do and need to get stronger and faster in the corners. I know I'm good with the puck, but that's one area in my game I can still improve."
You scored the game-winning goal for Finland in the championship of the World Junior Championship against the United States at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Jan. 5. How exciting is it knowing you will return to Rogers Arena for the NHL Draft on June 21-22?
"No matter the rink, the draft must be an event to remember for the rest of your life. But Rogers Arena is a special place for me already, and I feel good about going back. I really liked the arena and the city. It will be great to go back and take a walk down the memory lane."
Video: Kaapo Kakko lands at No. 2 on Draft Prospects list
You revealed to the Finnish Coeliac Society in February that you were diagnosed with diabetes and Celiac disease (unable to digest gluten) a few years ago. Have you had to adjust your game on the ice in any way because of this?
"It was five years ago, and I was given no restrictions then by doctors, nor do I have any now. Nothing. It's not affecting my game in any way, and I don't even think about it."
How much shorter is your hockey stick compared to others and why do you like using the shorter stick?
"Everyone has his own tendencies and I'm used to this kind of stick and like it. I've seen so many different stick lengths over the years, so I can't say how much shorter it is. I've had the same length since playing junior C (Under-14). I don't know why I haven't added any length to it over the years, maybe it's just that it feels so good. I like staying with the puck and puck handling, like in the corners where the space and time are limited, and that's where the short stick plays to my advantage. I could be somewhat clumsy with a longer stick. The short stick works very well for me."
What part of your game this season has improved over last season?
"I'm stronger now, and my skating has improved. I think those are the two most important things."
NHL.com/fi senior writer Varpu Sihvonen contributed to this report.
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