It wasn’t so much hype as a sense of anticipation. A year ago, for the first time ever, the first two overall selections in the NHL draft were going to teams based approximately six miles apart, and weren’t we all going to be in for a treat watching the rivalry develop between the Devils’ No. 1, Jack Hughes, and the Rangers’ No. 2, Kaapo Kakko?
Well, the future obviously all lies ahead of the two 19-year-olds, which is a pretty good thing considering their one season of NHL past added up to the biggest combined one-two statistical flop in more than two decades.
Hughes, miscast early as a top-six center at 18 years of age, recorded 21 points (7-14) for the Devils while Kakko, who struggled to assimilate into the North American game, posted 23 (10-23) on the other side of the Hudson.
You have to go all the way back to 1997 to find a draft in which the top two overall selections were both position players and combined for fewer points in the year immediately following selection than Hughes and Kakko did.
But you know what? If Hughes and Kakko track the first two overall selections of that year, the Devils and Rangers will meet on a ferry in the middle of the Hudson and dance the night away.
Because in 1997, the first-overall selection was Joe Thornton, on his way to the Hall of Fame despite a 3-4=7 rookie season in Boston under head coach Pat Burns, who made the center a healthy scratch more than 20 times.
And in 1997, the second-overall selection was Patrick Marleau, on his way to the Hall of Fame after a more representative freshman season in which he recorded 32 points (13-19) to make for a combined 39 points for the athletes who, 23 seasons later, are still in the league.
And let me tell you, Hughes was dancing all night long at the Garden on Thursday, racking up a pair of goals and an assist in an eye-opening performance to co-star with 47-save goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood in the Devils’ 4-3 victory.
The young man added musculature to his frame with diligent offseason work that has allowed him to battle in those 50-50 areas, but Hughes just never stopped moving his feet. He was dynamic and quicksilver, on his toes throughout while thriving under head coach Lindy Ruff, who worked as an assistant the previous three years on the other side of the Hudson.
“My confidence level is obviously high,” said Hughes, who has six points (2-4) through three contests. “I think it’s always been high, you know, but we’re building and I’m building personally.
“Lindy wants me to play a fast game, 200 feet, and he believes I can play against all four lines. So for me, the better I’m going to be playing is when our line has the puck and is on offense, so that’s a part of my game, hunting the puck and pickpocketing guys.”
Hughes scored on a tap-in from the goal line when a shot glanced off a shaky Alexandar Georgiev and landed in the crease to give the Devils a 2-1 lead at 4:13 of the second, only 1:23 after the Rangers had tied the score. Hughes got his second on a breakaway, speeding in on the left side before a backhand tuck through the five hole, after blocking a Jacob Trouba shot at the point, for a 3-1 lead at 8:38. Then after the Blueshirts had closed to within 3-2, Hughes found Miles Wood at the right porch with a brilliant diagonal look for the 4-2 goal on the power play at 16:00.
“The puck was finding me,” said Hughes, as if he were little more than an innocent bystander. “It was a good period for our line. We’ve got to keep that rolling.”
Kakko, meanwhile, did not record a point, but he played a strong game. Indeed, the Finn was on for a 21-6 attempts advantage in 11:22 of five-on-five time as he and linemates Filip Chytil (22-8) and Phillip DiGiuseppe controlled the play below the hash marks for shifts at a time. Kakko had a tough one on opening night, but he has looked comfortable with the puck and confident without it.
He was a bright spot in this one on a night when the Rangers did get a couple of power-play goals from big boys Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, but little from their top guns at even strength. Ryan Strome, who has had a dickens of a time getting going, was somehow on the ice for only one Rangers five-on-five shot attempt in 12:48, per Naturalstattrick.com. That seems impossible.
It is still early. Early in the season, impossibly early in the careers of Hughes and Kakko, who are out to prove that last year was an aberration and that the future is all in front of them.
The present has been pretty darn good for Hughes.