DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: How will Penguins keep pace with Hughes/Kakko? ☕

The only thing cooler than Jack Hughes’ oversized, oblong shades on this Thursday afternoon was the setting.

Jack Hughes and reporters on a yacht Thursday in Vancouver. - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The only thing cooler than Jack Hughes‘ oversized, oblong shades on this Thursday afternoon was the setting. He was aboard a 60-foot yacht rented out by the NHL for a media function with a few of the prospects in the draft, surrounded by monstrous mountains, endless blue water, buzzing motorboats and sweetly squawking seagulls.

Oh, and Kaapo Kakko was onboard, too.

Get used to those names, Pittsburgh. You’ll be hearing them far more often than most hockey fans for the next decade and change.

Hughes, the swift, skilled American forward, is the consensus choice to be picked No. 1 overall Friday night. Kakko, the more sizable but equally skilled Finnish forward, is the consensus to go next. And the teams in that equation are, in order, the Devils and Rangers. Old friend Ray Shero, who never encountered a U.S.-born prospect he didn’t prefer over one from anywhere else, isn’t tipping his hand, but no decision he makes will change that the two best amateurs on the planet — arguably the best since Connor McDavid’s arrival — are about to be separated by little more than the Hudson River.

Which means … yeah.

Remember when Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin showed up in the same division, and it became clear the Penguins and Capitals were about to go 1-2, back-and-forth for the foreseeable future?

Well, that’s precisely how it’s played out: In the Crosby/Ovechkin era, the Penguins have three Stanley Cups, all by beating Washington along the way, the Capitals have the one Cup, also by beating Pittsburgh along the way, and the other six current tenants of the Metro have a combined zero.

And for what it’s worth, Hughes, who’s been expected to go atop this class pretty much since escaping diapers, didn’t flinch Thursday when asked what kind of rivalry or connection he and Kakko might share.

“We’ll be linked together for a long time. Devils-Rangers. It should be pretty cool and a lot of fun,” Hughes would say, smiling under those shades and the bill of his ballcap. “You saw Ovechkin and Crosby do it all these years. I’m not saying we’re going to be Ovechkin and Crosby, but it’s going to be pretty cool to be linked like that.”

Time will tell. And just as obviously, there’s nothing the Penguins can do about that beyond countering them a half-dozen times each winter.

But within what Jim Rutherford, Bill Guerin and all concerned can control — and I hate to get stuck on stutter-loop with this subject — they need to add skill. That should begin Friday with whoever they take at 21st overall, as this class is universally seen as deep enough for a truly dynamic talent to be had there. And it should extend to more moves like the one that just brought Dominik Kahun from the Blackhawks. More of Kahun. More of Jared McCann. More miracles like Jake Guentzel, a third-rounder who ascends into a 40-goal scorer.

The franchise of Mario Lemieux has been founded on skill from the day his skates first touched the Mt. Lebanon practice ice in 1984. But it’s drying up. In Pittsburgh, that’s easily masked by the preponderance of still-thrilling 30-somethings. In the pipeline, though, for every Jordy Bellerive and Jan Drozg that’ll raise an occasional eyebrow, there’s a whole lot of nothing in the realm of high-end skill.

That can’t be a match for adding a Hughes or a Kakko. But it can more than support the stars in place and, possibly, build a better bridge toward whatever’s next.

• Easier said than done, right?

Anyone can toss around hollow goals like adding elite skill, then fold arms and finger-wave when it doesn’t work out. I get that. So I’ll elaborate a little here: Don’t worry about trends like the latest Cup champ. Don’t worry about the makeup of a given draft class or the prominent facet within a free-agent group. Stay focused on innate skill.

That can be skating, but it doesn’t need to be. Prioritize playmaking, as it fosters better puck possession. So does vision. So does instinct. So does — to get really minute on you here — the ability to create through tight quarters.

The latter element was one that caught my eye several years ago with Teddy Blueger in development camp. There was never a spot or situation on the rink that he couldn’t escape. He’d have his back turned, two bodies on him and still somehow execute just the right play to just the right linemate, and the attack would be sustained.

Took him a bit, but he reached the NHL. He’s no star, but there’s more there now, including bulk. He’s a bona fide piece.

• How cool?

Check out Hughes when I asked how many times he’s lived out that moment in his head:

Dude’s looking forward to sharing a stage with Gary Bettman. That cool.

• Much more on Hughes and Kakko in my Drive to the Net this morning.

• The latter’s showings for Finland in the World Junior Championships, then the NHL-laden World Championship raised him to a 1A that not many had foreseen, given Hughes’ prominence for so long. Kakko’s 6-2, 190, he does artwork with the puck and … if that sounds like Aleksander Barkov with an inch to grow, so be it. But most scouts aren’t even putting that ceiling over him.

He’s got some of that cool going for him, too. Surrounded by New York reporters who were mostly asking him — what else? — if he might be awed by the majesty that is New York, he more than held his own with, “It’s a nice city. Big city,” preceded by a thoughtful pause and accompanied by a casual shrug. And he rejected using an interpreter, choosing to fend for himself in his second language, much as Ovechkin did in his pre-draft session.

Sometimes a still image tells the tale best, and I really liked this one:

Kaapo Kakko meets with reporters Thursday in Vancouver. – DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS

• The Penguins can’t draft for need because they need everything except a goaltender. So it stands to reason that, of the handful of players management’s targeting at No. 21, they could just as easily take a center, a winger, a defenseman … anything but a goaltender.

Or wait.

Spencer Knight’s been between the pipes of the same U.S. National Team Development Program as Hughes, and he’s considered so sound, so sturdy that he might become just the 20th goaltender to be taken in the first round since the Penguins took Marc-Andre Fleury at No. 1 overall way back in 2004. Some are projecting he could slide up into the top 10, and some, predictably, feel he could fall all the way out of the round.

That’s the life of a goaltending prospect. No matter how proficient one is, nobody believes what they’re seeing until he gets to the NHL.

“It’s something you get used to, I guess,” Knight replied when I brought that up with him. “Maybe it’ll change someday, as more and more guys get picked in the first round and do well. I hope I’m part of that.”

I’m not advocating that the Penguins take Knight. But I’m also not inclined to cross him off. Matt Murray isn’t signed beyond next season. Casey DeSmith is what he is. Tristan Jarry’s going to get traded because he can’t clear waivers next winter. Precious little can be known about the two children set to play the position next season in Wilkes-Barre.

If the scouts like him, why not?

• If anyone’s asking, I’m not seeing a trade this weekend. It’s just too hard to move Phil Kessel and his limited no-trade in a setting like this. So much of what happens here happens in real-time.

• Never has Rutherford been as candid about the nature of his dialogue — and disagreements — with Sullivan as in today’s revealing Friday Insider entry by Dave Molinari. It’s a must-read, and I won’t do it justice by encapsulating here. Just to add, though, that’s also how I’ve heard others, including Sullivan, describe their relationship.

• Wait, Bettman sat in a room with grown executives and allowed someone to spout a single syllable about eliminating offsides from hockey?

On a day in which a Florida-based Major League Baseball franchise was permitted to explore spending half its summers up here in Canada, I’m not sure how much the sports-addled brain could process in a 24-hour span.

• Mercifully, it would appear the offside detonation never advanced past the giggling stage. But other rule changes did take place and, as anyone could have seen coming, almost all of them were reflexive responses to officiating gone awry in the recent playoffs.

Let’s call them, oh, the San Jose rules?

One allows coaches more challenge options to overturn goals, albeit with harsher penalties if they whiff. They can challenge high sticks, hand passes, pucks into the netting and other black-and-white fare in addition to the existing goaltender interference and offside calls. If they’re wrong, it’s a minor penalty. If they’re wrong twice, a double-minor.

No problem with this. Funny, but there’s a chance it’ll actually cut down on pauses.

The other change allows refs to look at their own work, if only for match penalties, majors and double-minors for high-sticking. No Toronto. No distant Star Trek displays for someone miles removed from game action. They’ll skate right over to the scorer’s table, grab an iPad and look for themselves.

I love this one.

Seriously, is there anything sillier in sports — baseball does this, too — than the sight of the refs or umpires standing there wearing headsets and staring blankly into space waiting for a ruling from afar?

• Hughes is so cool he could withstand walking onto that stage in a Bettman costume and shouting out something sarcastic about the dusty Smythe Division championship banners hanging overhead.

Not that anyone could conceive of such an act.

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alantig
alantig

DK and DM…

DJ
DJ

The anticipation is palpable.

lizard_kingbb
lizard_kingbb

The ridiculous eliminate offsides idea made me recall the discussion I heard on Sirius/XM NHL channel about why the red line should be brought back (I believe it was Bill Watters who proposed the idea). I admit I never thought of it this way but the argument is that having a red line encourages more skill, passing, etc. to move the puck down ice and really lets the stars shine, vs the simple get (close to) the red line and just dump and chase stuff we see so much of now. It would “bring back real hockey” in his words. The more I think of it, the more merit the idea seems to have. Thoughts?

Slippin Timmy
Slippin Timmy

I’d agree that offsides absolutely shouldn’t be taken away. I do like not having the red line, though. I wouldn’t disagree with the skill/passing aspect, but I think it benefits the speed game and with the speed/size of defensemen, it still requires a lot of both to complete a stretch pass. This is one of my favorite plays 😀

stnies
stnies

My thought is that putting the red line back in play encourages trapping teams like New Jersey was.

Slippin Timmy
Slippin Timmy

Very true as well. The trap is miserable.

musicman
musicman

You mean Shero isn’t going to take a puck moving defenseman in the first round?

bapes
bapes

Thanks for this, Dejan. Being a junior hockey fan in Pittsburgh is a lonely existence. (I’m also an Oilers fan, so I’m pretty much required to know a lot about the top of the draft every year.) It’s refreshing to see this kind of coverage in a Pittsburgh publication.

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

I could go the rest of my entire life without watching a professional sports draft.

pipecock
pipecock

Yep

BrianRichardson
BrianRichardson

‘Matt Murray isnt signed beyond next season?’ Cmon DK

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

Matt’s not signed past next year, it’s a fact, Brian. He’d be a restricted free agent after that.

BrianRichardson
BrianRichardson

I know the contract situation. Do you think theres any chance they dont lock him up? 0.0% we all know that. Something completely extraordinary would have to happen, we let flower move on to have this guy long term. To me that makes it a true non factor.

J.P.
J.P.

I still think the upside of Jarry (considering goalies penchant for late blooming) means that you trade DeSmith. You SHOULD be able to find a solid backup pretty easily. Jarry hasn’t been that much worse than Casey.

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

SHOULD? Ya yelled the word ‘should’? In my best Henry Gibson voice, ‘Very interesting…’.

Are ya figuring that GMJR is gonna screw it up?

dnicely21
dnicely21

arte johnson might take umbrage

my3sons
my3sons

Jesse Puljujarvi for Tristan Jarry.

Spiders10
Spiders10

My goodness is Hughes tiny. Was he sitting down in that picture?

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

Kid looks like he’s twelve…

stnies
stnies

They all do…

Kevin Connors
Kevin Connors

I do not like the idea of Refs looking at IPADs under duress, on ice, with sweat running down their faces, using possibly poor arena Wifi, on those small screens with lame resolution, possibly bad lighting, and possibly a limited number of angles making calls over reasonably relaxed people in Toronto making decisions based on perfect screens, in HD or superHD, on unlimited bandwidth, with huge screen size, with multiple angles making the calls … I prefer Toronto making the calls, for sure … the on-ice guys can have input, but I do not see that their making the full call makes sense as they do not have the best perspective, potentially .. KC

iacas
iacas

The smaller iPad Pro has a resolution of 2388×1668. HD is 1920 x 1080.

glacialdrift
glacialdrift

Or they could Surface Pro’s like everyone in the NFL

jrey93
jrey93

That turned out to be a shrewd piece of marketing by Microsoft. And the NFL probably got a good deal with them since Microsoft needed the exposure for the device

alantig
alantig

You can bet the referees are not using the arena wi-fi everyone else uses. The articles said the war room will provide the video. The league doesn’t want DPOS involved in these reviews because of the possibility of supplementary discipline.

BubbaBanjo
BubbaBanjo

These kids are great pics that I wish we had. But every draft pic is a question mark. Every one can become a Pouliot. We know what we “have”. It is aging sure. But they are pretty good. Smart trades and smart draft pics in any round can become Hornqvist. All is arrow up right now. Assuming the team adjusts to the reality of who they are now.

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

Poor Derrick Pouliot, I knew him well. I remember when he was executed by firing squad in the middle of Wilkes Barre’s iconic Public Square. What a shame.

There is no question it was all DK’s fault. And I still blame him to this very day. Maybe Derrick didn’t deserve to be on the Pens roster, but he sure as hell didn’t deserve the death sentence he ultimately received.

IdahoNation
IdahoNation

Eliminating offsides “altogether”. Yeah that’s brilliant. Visions of Wilson standing in front of Murray for 60 minutes (why change if you don’t have to skate) waving stick and punching him (see Sean Avery). Yeah I’d pay $ to watch that. Gary B cannot leave this sport soon enough.

StudentOfTheGame
StudentOfTheGame

It wouldn’t be hockey.

chrisinindy
chrisinindy

I don’t have a clue as to why this would have even been discussed.

JD1976
JD1976

Great primer for the draft, DK!

Jay Baileys
Jay Baileys

I love the rule changes as well. Wish they would allow the coach to challenge anything they want though. I’m sure some play they haven’t included, will come up and cost someone a playoff game. Just let them use their challenge how they see fit. If they are wrong so be it.

Hannity
Hannity

Per the other site looks like Letang IS in play, along with Hornqvist. Clear that space for Panarin!

dabide24
dabide24

No.

JC
JC

Sounds like ownership and management changed their minds about keeping Letang. He’s apparently “Plan B” if they can’t trade Kessel and GMJR ‘s big splash to change the team.

Slippin Timmy
Slippin Timmy

Sign me up. I wouldn’t put it out of the question to see a Staal type return, although I won’t believe he’ll get traded until it happens. Top 10 pick, young nhl ready dman with top pairing potential and another solid prospect. Then sign Panarin. You’d have a lethal offense, solid defense that will be able to play with structure and immensely help the future of the organization.

StudentOfTheGame
StudentOfTheGame

Wow Dk, looks extremely rough out there. Good thing you packed that survival gear!!! Yinz stay safe, First World can be brutal! 😉

Hughes looks like he belongs in elementary school, not the pros. Kakko should go numero uno, but unfortunately we know Shero and his fetish for the lil fellas all too well! Consequently, the Rags rebuild is about to get a fast forward.

Cumberbatch's Stunt Double
Cumberbatch's Stunt Double

Kako is generally referred to as #2 in some languages.

wisertime
wisertime

Guentzel ended up being one of Shero’s best picks.

timtamgolf
timtamgolf

I would trade DeSmith and make Jarry the backup. Saves money and better insurance.

Jay Baileys
Jay Baileys

I’m not sure why it’s a forgone conclusion Jarry is gone. He had the bigger pedigree, coming out of the draft. They gave DeSmith the job last year, why not give the guy who’s been here several years a shot.

StudentOfTheGame
StudentOfTheGame

Should be a competition in camp. If Jarry wins the job Pens can shave the cap cost of that position by 40%ish iirc. And as you said J B, Jarry has the higher pedigree and upside.

And who is number 3? That will come in to play when Murray goes down.

DeSmith is also more likely to clear waivers, should it come to that.

J.P.
J.P.

Plus more upside. Jarry could still break out..

Bridge
Bridge

Killer close DK.

jrey93
jrey93

Those two are, along with Hischier, Patrick and Svechnikov are going to be running the Metro sooner rather than later. I think the Pens absolutely have to keep that in mind when making their selections and roster moves. Tough to do that while still trying to take advantage of a cup window.

Kakko is going to really be scary – big, fast, skilled, creative, and with a likely massive chip on his shoulder.

StudentOfTheGame
StudentOfTheGame

Patrick made huge strides last year and should have a monster season.

You’re so right about Kakko. If the Rags handle the off season correctly, and Trouba was a tremendous first step, they should challenge for a playoff spot.

Perhaps they will take it from the Pens if Rutherford doesn’t rectify their major, blatant, obvious issues and/or Sully sticks to his stagnant, foreseeable, solved system!

Hannity
Hannity

The only way is to tank again in 4 to 6 years. If they don’t it’s years of mediocrity. They did it to get Mario. They did it to get Ovechkin and Crosby (missed on Ovechkin). Hope their lottery ball luck holds out!

Years of Control
Years of Control

St Louis & Boston defied that, but what you cite is mostly true. Be awful enough for a few seasons to draft high & hope that game-changing talents are avaible (Crosby/Malkin, Kopitar/Dougherty, Toews/Kane), then fill in around them. But the two recent finalists haven’t been awful in recent years as I recall. But many teams that are respectable are never able to draft those world class talents, like say, Minnesota & Philly (who got lucky to draft #2 in ’17).

Heisenburgh
Heisenburgh

Sign big slow defensemen and trade top players, obviously.

Bvolk81
Bvolk81

There’s only one way for the Pens to compete against the superstar forwards when facing they’ll never have another opportunity like they did in drafting Malkin and Crosby. In my opinion, it is loading up on defense while keeping their aging stats in Malkin and Crosby in forward with great supporting parts