After Rasmus Dahlin went all season last year as the consensus first-overall 2018 NHL Draft choice, it is quite obvious that sometimes players are too far ahead of their peers to be caught. For a while, it seemed that Jack Hughes would be a similarly advanced player whose status as his year's first-overall pick would be unchallenged.
Full game performance footage, commonly known now as shift-by-shift video, is becoming far more prevalent and readily-available for all to see. In particular, some of our own members have been hard at work compiling this footage; one should acknowledge the contributions of HFBoards members @KillEmAll83 (ProspectShifts.com), @landy92mack29 (Burgundy Rainbow Draft Shift By Shifts on YouTube), @thefeebster (bigwhite06 on YouTube), among others who have spent the time and effort to create such excellent video packages for the rest of us.
This year marks the greatest leap forward for the online scouting community, as more video than ever has been made available for the upcoming draft prior to the start of the draft season! The more eyes are on their videos, the more educated the populace becomes about the draft class, which in turn helps us participate in the conversation within the hockey community. The draft journalists and scouting services whose opinions make the biggest difference are all members of this forum too, and to be able to exchange opinions and have a dialogue about draft prospects for the first time in hockey history is better for the entire community.
Over 75 full shift-by-shift videos covering over sixty 2019 draft-eligible prospects are available on ProspectShifts.com (technically hosted but unlisted on YouTube). HPC features multi-game highlight packages regarding 17 players so far. Burgundy Rainbow has 41 full shift-by-shift videos of 2019 draft-eligibles already. Today is September 16, 2018, and coverage of the 2019 NHL Draft is already unlike anything ever seen before. Anyone looking to study players like 2019 draft-eligibles Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, and Kaapo Kakko already have three or four full games each to analyze. Some less frequently discussed first-round prospects like Simon Holmstrom and Maxim Cajkovic already have two games of footage each available. As the season progresses, one can anticipate many more videos being added to these libraries of footage.
My observations of this draft class so far include multiple full-game league viewings of 21 individual prospects, as well as the 2018 IIHF U18 tournament last April, the 2018 World Junior Summer Showcase, and the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.
Full profiles of these players can be found in my various HFBoards posts over the last several weeks. I will post a full piece profiling all of these prospects in the next few days. Here is my current ranking of draft-eligible forwards I have seen, as of September 17, 2018:
Entering this draft year, one might have heard lots about 5'10'' 167 lbs playmaker Jack Hughes. However, having studied many of the forwards touted as current first-round selections, I have come to the conclusion that Jack Hughes isn't that far ahead of the couple of players in the next-highest tier and that the 6'1'' 180 lbs Finnish forward, Kaapo Kakko of Liiga's TPS Turku, has great potential to eclipse Hughes. Liiga is the Finnish Elite League, the highest level of professional men's hockey in Finland. Kakko plays on TPS' first line, a mighty task for a 17-year-old.
Kaapo Kakko is a European-style power playmaker whose combination of elusiveness, puck skills, and puck protection abilities make him a phenom worth paying close attention to. His puck skills are among the very best of the 2019 draft class, but even more importantly, his hockey IQ is incredibly high -- his patience and creativity with the puck and on his skates, and his smart, aggressive positioning on the forecheck allow him to be a constant offensive threat and a reliable defensive player. He may not overwhelm the opposition with brute north-south strength, speed or physicality, but has the size, balance, agility, and puck skills to protect the puck and maneuver with it in tight spaces -- a graceful combination of finesse, mobility, and strength. Kakko is very agile and fluid on his skates, and is an east-west player who can pivot back-and-forth very quickly along the boards, shield the puck with his body, and rag the puck around; he is a puck hound with the mobility to cover quite a bit of ground and forecheck very effectively. He has a great, albeit underutilized release, has quick hands and excellent stick handling ability, sees the ice very well, and can change directions quickly to take the puck into the middle to score. He has the ability to fake one way then swivel in another direction seamlessly, making him very difficult to contain. He's also a great playmaker who makes crisp passes and makes difficult passes look easy. He's powerful, elusive, and intelligent. One might describe him as an agile power winger and a puck magnet.
To have a sense of his style of play, here is an excellent 12-minute package of shift highlights from his IIHF U18 tournament last April. Since then, he has become even faster and stronger.
Having watched both Jack Hughes and Kakko quite closely and now comparing their development, tendencies, strengths, deficiencies, and styles of play, I have found Kakko to be the more appealing prospect of the two. This is solidified by Kakko's fiery start to his 2018-19 campaign on TPS' top line. He has played in several Champions Hockey League against teams from other European adult leagues, and has been one of TPS' top players every single game, dominating at times. He now plays on their first line, and averages 18 minutes per game. For a 17-year-old to lead a Finnish Elite League team on the ice is an outstanding achievement. He did so twice against Malmo Redhawks of the Swedish Elite League, and twice against the DEL's Munich Red Bulls, the three-time reigning DEL champions -- he scored in each of his most recent two Champions League games. Following that, he has scored two goals, three points in his first two Liiga games, including the game winners in both matches. His poise and the maturity of his performances throughout these games is unlike that of any normal 17-year-old prospect. As of today, he has 4 goals, 5 points in his last 4 professional games and is on his way towards an outstanding season in Liiga. The Liiga season is 60 games long -- Patrik Laine only scored 33 points in his draft year; Alexander Barkov holds the U18 record with 48 points.
Hughes and Kakko separate themselves from the rest of the pack because of their combination of high hockey IQ, ability to always involve themselves in the play, ability to anticipate plays well, as well as their elite stickhandling abilities, and excellent skating. No other player besides these two has such an ideal package of talents and abilities to elevate them into this very exclusive category in 2019. However, while I like both players very much, Hughes possesses some deficiencies that I do not see in Kakko's game.
Although Jack Hughes is a superbly talented stick handler and a very shifty skater, I find that he tries to avoid contact whenever he carries the puck; when he skates and dekes around opposing players, he isn't pushing his way past them so much as he is trying to squeeze his body around them. There is a difference between the two, as one requires precision and no obstacles to slow one down; the other -- active, powerful maneuvering -- is to be elusive, but to be able to push past obstacles. Both players can cut around opponents and drive to the net, but Kakko has a much more powerful frame. Kakko has gained some speed this year, and is impressively agile on his skates. As a stick handler, Hughes is very poised and is always in control, but he is physically weaker on the puck than Kakko; whenever he is clipped by an opposing body, the puck starts to get away from him. Kakko, like Hughes, possesses quick hands, but controls the puck better in traffic, especially along the boards. This is aggressive maneuvering, not passive.
Hughes is a pass-first playmaker with a shot that lacks power. Like his brother's shot, Jack's shot might be his worst attribute. Kakko, on the other hand, has already exhibited one of the better wrist shots of his draft class, but is also an excellent playmaker.
Both players are agile, but Kakko benefits greatly from his puck protection skills along the boards to complement his shiftiness and make him extremely difficult to separate from the puck. Hughes does not possess particularly strong puck protection skills, despite his ability to elude opponents in close quarters.
In terms of defensive play, I consider Hughes' game to be the worst of my group of elite players. While Kakko, Turcottte, and Podkolzin are all very responsible in the defensive end, Hughes is inattentive in the defensive end and sometimes doesn't do enough to help prevent the opposition from pressuring his team. This can cause trouble.
Hughes is a very slick player. Compared to Kakko, who thrives in all areas of the ice and dominates possession, however, Hughes plays a softer game with feebler qualities. He is not quite as complete a player as Kakko is, nor is he starting to look that far ahead of Kakko offensively. Kaapo Kakko has had an excellent start to the 2018-19 season in the Finnish Elite League against adult players. The highest age group that Hughes has ever played against was at the World Junior Summer Showcase, where he looked decent.
When both players are of similar hockey IQ and puck skills, I prefer players who can overwhelm the opposition with at least some degree of strength and out-muscle them in one-on-one situations. Hughes does not possess that ability. Yes, he can be elusive, but he does not always succeed in one-on-one situations either; at the NHL level, even Connor McDavid, who could elude players without ever being touched at lower levels, must push through obstacles frequently to reach his destination. At the NHL level, defensive positioning is so much more precise than at the junior level; defenders don't often give the puck carrier much space.
I don't know if Hughes will ever be able to develop the strength to beat defenders with a combination of force and finesse. He has a small frame, and his brother's height is evidence that he might not grow too much more either.
He may be a great skater, but I also disagree with the opinion that he is a top-level skater in the NHL. Connor McDavid has the best acceleration in the NHL and excellent top speed. Jack's own brother Quinn skates better than he does, with a more explosive first step and much smoother edgework. Jack has small, quick bursts and great puck control while he is moving, but I don't think his skating is in the same category as the most elite skaters in the NHL.
I see some people call Jack Hughes the next Patrick Kane, but I do not agree with this notion. Kane is an excellent shooter with a powerful one-timer and tremendous wrist shot. Kane is a top-notch goal scorer. Hughes' shooting skills are average. Kane is, frankly, more mobile a skater than Hughes, with better edge work. Hughes is an agile skater, but not on that same elite level. Hughes has little bursts of speed to help bring him around defenders, but he doesn't have the effortless acceleration or sustained use of his edges to zip around the offensive zone the way that Kane does. He also doesn't hound the puck the way that Kane does, instead opting to distribute it at a much more frequent rate. Kane loves to hold on and make things happen independently.
A few have compared Hughes to McDavid. I think they play similar east-west games, frankly. However, McDavid has so many more tools than Hughes. If you were to take away some of the acceleration and top speed -- thus neutering his north-south game--, make McDavid three inches and thirty pounds smaller, and also take a little bit of zip off of his shot, you might get something similar to Jack.
McDavid is better defensively than Jack Hughes and has a more much complete skill set. Hughes has some of those skills, but lacks others -- especially the speed that make McDavid so special.
Not much separates the stick handling abilities of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko; the marginal difference to me does not outweigh the much more complete skill set that Kakko offers. In terms of skating, Hughes is an agile skater, but he is not powerful nor would his skating belong in the top-tier of the NHL. Kakko provides such a mature, well-rounded, dynamic offensive game with great playmaking elements, puck protection elements, and forechecking elements.
Like Hughes, Kakko can create chances in close quarters and flex his creativity to generate chances from out of nowhere. His defensive game is better, his shot is much better, and he plays a more powerful game.
With regards to the positions they play, here has been some debate as to the suitability of Jack Hughes as an NHL center.
The type of game that Hughes plays -- quick off the rush, with puck transitional skills through the neutral zone, a finesse-based, offense-first mentality and a lack of strength-based qualities -- is much more of a playmaking winger's game than that of a high-end center. Hughes is also very small for a first-line center; centers who are 5'10'' and shorter tend to compensate for their height with a heavy, strong frame. Height is less important than weight, but height is a factor along with frame type in determining the amount of weight that a player can carry before heaviness becomes detrimental. Hughes is short with a small frame -- rare for a successful NHL center. The fact that he also isn't very good defensively suggests that he might end up as a winger in the NHL.
On the other hand, we have a small sample size of Kakko's suitability as a center, but Team Finland tried him successfully at center at the World Junior Summer Showcase. His complete game could make him a potential candidate to try at center in the future. Craig Button was convinced enough to mention in his latest Craig's List publication that Kakko can play either wing or center and possesses versatility as a forward. I feel that Craig doesn't view these players enough to assess all of them with great confidence, but he definitely saw Kakko at the Summer Showcase.
The first player on my list who is certain to be a top-line center is 5'11'' 180 lbs playmaker Alex Turcotte; he is at #3 on my list. He is an agile, powerful skater with excellent stick handling abilities, great hockey IQ, a tenacious forechecking game, and reliable defensive abilities. Another player I see at the top of many rankings is Alex Newhook, who I have flagged as a player with great tools but average hockey IQ -- not a player worthy of a top-five selection. You may also hear about Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin as a top-five selection, who has great potential as a high-IQ goal scorer. However, if one is looking to select the best player available, I believe the correct choice would be Kaapo Kakko.
A good season in Liiga is all that I believe is necessary for Kakko to convince stat watchers. Based on his role with TPS Turku right out of the gate this season, he is poised to have a standout year.
The NHL team I support drafted Quinn Hughes. The 2019 NHL Draft will be hosted in my city. There will be pressure for the Vancouver Canucks to select Jack if they are in a situation to select him. It seems like a storybook scenario. I am not Finnish, so I have no additional interest in Finnish prospects than those from other nations. In spite of all this, from all of my personal viewings, I can't help but feel that Kaapo Kakko would be the better selection if my team had the opportunity to select either player.
If Kakko continues to have success this season in Liiga, I think there could be a shift in the consensus opinion about this topic by the 2019 midterm rankings.
Pay close attention to Kaapo Kakko. His name might be the first you'll hear at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.
Here is shift-by-shift video of Kakko's most recent Champions League game against Malmo Redhawks of the SHL, as well as his 2018-19 Liiga debut last weekend:
Meanwhile, if you've never seen Jack Hughes play, have a look at his 2018 World Junior Showcase game against Team Canada. These were the U20 squads, the highest level that Hughes has ever played at.