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:
• 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.
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.