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New York Rangers Remain in Best Possible Spot at 2019 NHL Draft

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If the Devils select Jack Hughes, the Rangers get to pick Kaapo Kakko. If the Devils pick Kakko, the Rangers get to pick Hughes. Either scenario is an epic win for the Blueshirts.

Finland v United States: Gold Medal Game - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils have had fun on social media since the start of the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, and both have been impressed with the play of Kaapo Kakko. And really; who can blame them?

It’s hard to ignore Kakko’s five goals, two of which were empty netters, in two games — with the goal above being the one that’s grabbed the most attention thus far. But it’s been interesting to see a good number of fans upset at the possibility of the flashy Finn being selected No. 1 overall.

This includes both Rangers fans who have become enamored with Kakko since draft lottery night, and Devils fans who are scared their franchise would be making an epic mistake by passing on a top talent like Jack Hughes.

The two players will face off today at 10:00 a.m. with Team USA taking on Team Finland, and the game will be broadcast on the NHL Network. The prospect of either player pulling a Blueshirt over their head is a very exciting thought for a rebuilding team, and even more exciting when it was thought the team would be picking a little later in the draft.

The Devils and their fans should be excited about both as well, although I can see why they’d prefer Hughes. For the entirety of the year, NHL draft prospect rankings have had Jack Hughes No. 1, and Kakko nipping at his heels in the No. 2 position. There’s good reason for this even though both are tremendously talented players, and I think it is worth reminding everyone that the Rangers win big time by getting to select whoever the Devils don’t.

There was some concern that the Rangers might go off the board at No. 2 overall. Considering that Jeff Gorton has publicly talked about both Hughes and Kakko and what they have the ability to do, odds are one of the two are going to end up a Ranger.

If I were asked to give an immediate answer, I would say that I think the Devils pick Hughes and love the decision for the entirety of his career. Centers overall have more value to a team — something that’s evident by how much more centers are generally paid than their winger counterparts. Also, I don’t think it should be overlooked that Devils’ head coach and Team USA assistant John Hynes is working with Hughes right now and getting a sense of what he’s capable of.

But just the same; there are logical and defensible reasons to take Kakko instead. Both players having amazing skill sets — although Hughes has the higher ceiling of the two — but ultimately the selection could come down to franchise need. Adam will be releasing his NHL draft rankings soon, and he will go a lot more in-depth on each player.

The Devils might have a grand plan in the works which involves them acquiring a premier center to create a long-term one-two punch with Nico Hischier, and therefore pick Kakko instead. Once that center arrived in New Jersey it would become clearer why they did what they did. This could be via free agency or trade in an attempt to create an environment that convinces 2020 UFA Taylor Hall to re-sign in New Jersey. But then again; the prospect of playing with Hughes would interest me too if I were Hall. Conversely, if the Devils don’t see Hall extending, they’re going to need a high-caliber winger to replace the void he leaves on the first line.

In this scenario the Rangers end up with their long-term No. 1 center of the future in Hughes. Adding a pivot in Hughes is a win for the Rangers; he could easily slot right down the middle of the second line to get acclimated to the NHL behind Mika Zibanejad before the roles reverse in the next few years.

Or the Devils simply get their center by picking Hughes and the Rangers take Kakko at No. 2 and then the draft truly begins with the Chicago Blackhawks at No. 3 overall. Either way; the Rangers win!

United States v France: Group A - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

There’s not a lot going on right now in Rangerland, and the reactions to how the draft may go are understandable. But it is important to bring up that Hughes is coming off a season in which he tallied 34 goals and 78 assists for 112 points in 50 games which equates to 2.24 points per game.

For context, Auston Matthews owns the USDP’s all-time best season with a line of 55-62-117, but he did that in 60 games, or 10 more games than Hughes. This is not to compare Hughes and his future to Matthews, but to point out how awesome a season he just had, why he should and likely will go No. 1 overall, and why’d he be an amazing get for the Rangers if somehow he were to slide to No. 2 overall.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the concept of analyzing what Kakko is doing in an international tournament versus grown men, and attempting and extrapolate what that could be in an NHL environment next season to quantify NHL readiness.

To that end, I think it is fair to say some are paying more attention to the physical differences — Hughes being 5’10” and 170 pounds, Kakko being 6’2” and 190 pounds — and making some snap decisions in what that size could mean in adjusting to the physicality of the NHL.

I certainly don’t blame anyone for doing that after watching Kakko continue to play his game against NHL talent, but in due time there will be equally impressive clips featuring Hughes doing some of the same. Both are tremendous hockey players, and there’s a reason why people are having these conversations.

Overall, the Rangers are in a great spot, and I am certain that both teams — more so the Devils since they hold the No. 1 overall pick — will try and draw a reaction with their interest in both Kakko and Hughes. Internally I think the Devils will know who they are picking on draft night well in advance, but until Ray Shero heads to the state it will be kept a mystery.

Regardless of who the Devils pick overall, this is a win-win scenario for the Rangers. Whoever they don’t select will look great in a Blueshirt. A player sliding to second doesn’t have to be an indictment of their talent, it’s just that one has to slide. Whether it’s Hughes or Kakko, the Rangers are already that much better with them.

Getting the No. 2 overall pick was an unexpected gift, and the start of an offseason that will play a role in the reshaping of the franchise.