NHL Draft Watch: Is World Championship Performance Enough to Earn Kakko First Overall?

The NHL draft is just over a month away, and what once looked like a clear picture of the first overall pick has developed into one of the more competitive races in recent memory. American center Jack Hughes has led basically every 2019 mock draft ever created, but Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko has played himself into consideration for the number 1 pick.

In a rare occurrence for top prospects, who are 18 when they are drafted, both Hughes and Kakko are playing for their respective countries in the Men’s World Championships currently going on in Kosice, Slovakia. Hughes is scoreless in four games, while Kakko leads the tournament, full of top NHL players, in goals, with five in four games. To be fair, Kakko is playing major minutes on a depleted Finnish team, while Hughes is playing behind many established NHL players on the American team, meaning his ice time is minimal.

Still, based on that alone, you’d be justified in thinking Kakko seems like the clear pick. But Hughes remains on top of every draft board, even those released with that knowledge. Most experts still believe Hughes is a better prospect, and in the context of their bodies of work, that view makes much more sense. NHL teams — including the New Jersey Devils, who draft first overall this year — won’t draft based on performance in a single tournament, even if it is impressive.

Hughes, who played for the U.S. Under-18 team at the National Team Development Program this year, had 112 points in 50 total games at the NTDP. He broke the career scoring record at the World U-18 World Championships with a 20-point performance in only 7 games, also shattering the American records for single tournament and career scoring. In his time at the NTDP, Hughes has broken records previously set by Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel, and Clayton Keller, among others. Keller held the record for NTDP career scoring at 189 points. Hughes reached nearly 230. It’s not hard to see why this is the resume of a top pick.

But Kakko has an impressive career himself. Playing in Finland’s top professional league against grown men, he amassed 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games, and he’s continued his production at the World Championships. He may not have all the accolades Hughes has received, but he plays a smart, fast game that will translate to NHL production next year.

How do they fare head-to-head? In a highly touted matchup at the World Under-20 Championships in January, Kakko’s Finland beat Hughes’s U.S. to win the gold medal, with Kakko scoring the winning goal late in the 3rd period. But Hughes arguably outplayed Kakko in the tournament, putting up four points in four games despite fighting through an injury, while Kakko had 5 points in 7 games.

One concern is size: Kakko stands at 6-feet 2-inches and close to 200 pounds already, while Hughes is listed at 5-feet 10-inches and 170 pounds. But the NHL is getting smaller and faster, and Hughes fits the mold of current American stars like Kane and Johnny Gaudreau, so his size shouldn’t be treated as a negative. Also, Hughes is a natural center and Kakko usually a right winger. Top centers are hard to come by and are therefore treated as more valuable, which will work in Hughes’s favor.

For what it’s worth, I think Hughes will go first, as he should. What he’s done at the NTDP is nothing short of astounding, and he’ll be an elite NHL player. To find a center with his playmaking skills and on-ice intelligence is exceedingly rare. Kakko is, no doubt, a fantastic hockey player and will be an impact player in the NHL as soon as next season, but he doesn’t have the franchise-defining potential that Hughes has.

In any event, the next month will see plenty of debate as the narrative shifts from Hughes as the certain top pick to including Kakko in the discussion. It’ll be exciting to see how it all plays out, and, regardless of when Hughes and Kakko end up being drafted, the NHL will be better having these two talented young players in the league next season.

-Tiger Bjornlund

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