It wasn’t so much hype as a sense of anticipation. A year ago, for the first time, the first two overall selections in the 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 first season of NHL experience added up to the biggest combined one-two statistical flop in more than two decades.
Hughes, miscast early as a top-six center, recorded 21 points (7-14) for New Jersey, while Kakko, who struggled to assimilate into the North American game, posted 23 points (10-23) on the other side of the Hudson.
Twelve first-overall picks in the prior 32 drafts alone had eclipsed the combined 44-point production of Hughes and Kakko. Of course, there were drafts in which one of the two first selections did not play in the NHL the first year following selection. And there were a couple of drafts in which goaltenders went first or second. So keep that in mind. It is not necessarily a straight line from there to here.
But you do 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 than Hughes and Kakko in the year immediately following selection.
And 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 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.
Yes, the Devils and Rangers, who met at the Garden on Tuesday in each respective team’s third game of the season, would be just fine with this kind of bust-to-boom scenario.
Hughes, who reported to camp more fit with added musculature necessary to compete in the NHL, picked up three assists in the Devils’ opening two games against Boston in which the team followed a shoot-out loss with a victory. He is the de facto first-line center in Nico Hischier’s continued absence, skating between Yegor Sharangovich and Kyle Palmieri.
When at home, head coach Lindy Ruff — who took the job after three seasons as a Rangers’ lead defense assistant coach — can pick and choose his match for Hughes and his line. But Tuesday at the Garden, the matches were dictated by David Quinn. And the Blueshirts’ head coach generally likes to go power on power by getting the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich unit on against the opposition’s top unit. Hence, an added challenge for Hughes.
Kakko played the opener on the right side with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin on the 1A Line on which he had skated throughout camp. But he was switched off the line, replaced by Alexis Lafreniere in the Great Game Two Shuffle. So it was back to the third line with Filip Chytil and Phil Di Giuseppe for Saturday’s match against the Islanders.
And as the team prospered, so did Kakko, who fired home a second-period, right-dot one-timer off a Di Giuseppe feed for his first of the year before leaping joyously into Chytil’s arms behind the net. Close your eyes and it could have been Yogi Berra and Don Larsen on the ice. You get the point.
It is critical Kakko feel comfortable and confident in his skin after a first year in which he appeared out of sorts while making the transition both from the Finnish culture to this one and from the big European rinks to the smaller North American ice surface. Saturday’s goal was a start … and maybe the start of a connection between Kakko and Chytil, who combined to produce frighteningly bad peripheral numbers in 290:49 of five-on-five time last season.
The Battle of the Hudson has raged since the Colorado Rockies moved to the Meadowlands in 1982 and became the Devils. It was joined by the likes of Mark Messier and Scott Stevens; Martin Brodeur and Mike Richter and then Henrik Lundqvist. Oh, and by antagonists Brodeur and Sean Avery. Now this is a new generation.
And the battle between Hughes and Kakko enters Year 2, which surely will be a whole lot different than Year 1.