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Hughes, Kakko face off for first time, fueling Devils-Rangers rivalry

Top two picks in 2019 Draft downplay significance, keep focus on teams

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko will be headliners when the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers play for the first time this season, at Prudential Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

It's the first chance the hockey world has to see the top two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft go head to head in the New York-area rivalry. Except neither Hughes, the No. 1 pick of the Devils, or Kakko sees it that way.

"It was a big deal when those teams got the first and second picks," said Hughes who has no points through six games, all New Jersey losses (0-4-2). "I mean, it doesn't happen often when those picks go to rivalries, rivalry games. I think the media makes a big deal out of it, but for me and him I'm sure it's just about our teams and trying to get a win."

Kakko, who scored his first goal and point in a 4-1 loss against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, echoed that sentiment.

"It's Rangers against Devils and that's it," he said.

But not everyone feels that way. Fans, the media and former players on both sides of the rivalry are excited to see the two rookies match up for the Devils and Rangers (2-1-0), whose home arenas are 14 miles apart.

"If you go back a year, yeah, I'd want to watch this game, but I need to see this game this year," former Rangers goalie Mike Richter said. "This one is marked on the calendar. You couldn't have painted a better scenario for both these squads and it's great for the NHL to have this."

Video: EDM@NYR: Kakko uses slick move to net first NHL goal

The NHL has never had this, the top two picks in the same draft playing in such close proximity to one another. 

Former Devils goalie Martin Brodeur tried to liken it to two years ago, when the Devils selected center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick and the Philadelphia Flyers, their rivals 90 miles to the south, picked center Nolan Patrick at No. 2.

But these are teams competing for space and fans in the same market.

"They're both going to be under a microscope here and there will be the talk of who is better, who is producing, who is the best pick, should Kakko have been No. 1?" said former Devils defenseman Scott Stevens, a Hall of Famer who is an analyst for NHL Network. "This will keep this conversation going for a long time because of the location of the two teams and where both players were drafted. This storyline should have some pace to it."

The geography even created internal scrutiny prior to the draft.

"We were all saying it would even be a question who we were going to pick if the other guy wasn't going to be in our backyard, so it became interesting," said Brodeur, the Hall of Famer who is executive vice president of business development for the Devils. "The Rangers didn't have much to do, they were just waiting for the second guy, but people are going to be judged by that. … If Kakko is in Vancouver, nobody is asking that question. Now it's more scrutinized because it's right across the river." 

Brodeur said he thinks team success will ultimately determine if they were right.

"These kids will both be good, but they can't do it by themselves," he said. "Look at Connor McDavid in Edmonton. He's the best player in the League but it's been tough for him making the playoffs, only once since he's been in the League. These two guys, their success will be dictated by the success of the franchise. That's just the nature of the beast. You can be as good as you want but if the team can't back you up it makes it hard."

The Devils and Rangers made efforts to insulate their 18-year-old forwards in the offseason.

New Jersey acquired defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators the day after they selected Hughes. They also signed forward Wayne Simmonds and acquired Nikita Gusev in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Video: Rosen joins NHL Now to discuss Hughes-Kakko and more

The Rangers signed forward Artemi Panarin and acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade from the Winnipeg Jets. They also acquired rookie defenseman Adam Fox in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's almost a bit of an arms race here between the two teams, which I think is exciting," Stevens said. "There is a rivalry. They don't like each other. The fans don't like each other. I think there are a lot of things to talk about here."

On Thursday, though, the conversation will start with Hughes and Kakko because it's the first of what should be many measuring-stick games for the new faces in an old, heated rivalry.

"Rangers fans had an instant love affair with Kakko as soon as Hughes was called for the Devils, but if it was the other way around they'd love Hughes," Richter said. "They will be linked. That's what makes sports a constant measure. There's no question it amplifies it being that close. There's so much history in the rivalry, so much buildup, and now you put No. 1 vs. No. 2 sprinkled on top, it just makes it great. And the beautiful thing is these guys are 18 years old, so we can have the same conversation in a decade."

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