A TIE? More and more scouts are warming up to the idea that Kaapo Kakko could overtake Jack Hughes for number one in this year’s NHL draft. Photo: Bildbyrån
World Juniors 2019

“I see it as 50-50″ – scouts weigh in on the Hughes vs. Kakko debate

Jack Hughes is still No. 1.

Kaapo Kakko is certainly nipping at his heels, though.

And it’s starting to get to the point of splitting hairs between the top two eligibles for the 2019 NHL Draft.

“I absolutely see Kakko as a legit No.1 pick, and I’m still a bit surprised to hear so little debate, although the chatter has increased since the World Juniors,” said Dennis Schellenberg, head European scout for Future Considerations.

“Hughes was the undisputed No. 1 to start the season, and it usually takes a while to evaluate if a player is just having a prolonged hot streak or he’s for real, and I believe lots of scouts are in the transformation from considering Kakko being on a hot streak to being the real deal.”

Hughes remains first in Future Considerations’ Winter ranking for the 2019 draft.

Kakko, who scored the golden goal with 86 seconds remaining to help Finland over the United States — and Hughes — to a first-place finish at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship last week, remains second.

The gap, though, is shrinking.

Hughes, long a consensus first overall pick, hasn’t stumbled on the projection, either.

The 17-year-old managed four assists in four games at the World Juniors to help Team USA to silver despite battling an injury.

He’s also piled up 65 points (13 goals, 52 assists) in just 36 games with the US National Team Development Program this season.

The shine certainly hasn’t come off Hughes.

But there’s a spotlight firmly fixed on Kakko, who had five points (two goals, three assists) in seven games at the World Juniors and 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 28 games with TPS.

Rightfully so, too.

ON LAINE’S PACE

At the same age, Kakko is putting up offensive numbers in Liiga that rival Patrik Laine’s production before being selected second overall — behind American center Auston Matthews — by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Kakko is doing it with a more rounded game, though.

“Hughes is clearly the more skilled player and is an amazing playmaker,” Schellenberg said. “He’s able to make plays that not many can, while Kakko is way better in the physical department and of course, also his size helps him to make plays.

“The big question when comparing Hughes against Kakko is how they’ll translate their game into the NHL and that’s where Kakko’s big advantage probably lays in. His game seems better suited for the big league and that is one reason why Kakko could end up being the better player one day.”

Kakko’s Finnish teammates certainly support the case.

Eeli Tolvanen and Henri Jokiharju, who won gold with Kakko at the World Juniors and have their own NHL experiences under their belts, are of the opinion Kakko will go first overall.

Some scouts are coming around on the idea, too.

“For me, Kakko is a legit threat to go No. 1,” said Miika Arponen, a Future Considerations scout based in Finland. “I think the two are really close, but I’d actually pick Kakko right now before Hughes. It is obviously going to be choosing between two very good players, but I think Kakko has a better probability to make it to superstar level.”

It certainly opens a debate.

One intensified by world stage showcase.

“I don’t think the World Juniors was the main reason for having much more of a debate Hughes versus Kakko now, but I believe that it was important Kakko to display that he is a legit candidate to go No. 1,” Schellenberg said.

“He showed that he can not only play dominant against his age group or in a top Liiga team playing with good professional players, but he was also able to have an impact competing against top U20 players worldwide.”

There’s plenty of debate to go around.

It’ll continue in the coming months.

And intensity in the weeks, days and hours leading into June 21 — draft day in Vancouver.

“I see it as 50-50,” Schellenberg said. “It will probably come down to what player the first picking organization prefers.

“It’s the skilled, undersized playmaker or the powerful, strong, scoring forward.”

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