Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons

James O'Brien
·6 min read

By just about any measure, Devils center Jack Hughes and Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko struggled during their rookie seasons. Troublingly, Hughes and Kakko struggled even beyond the “for a rookie” or “as the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft” standards. In some cases, Hughes and Kakko didn’t even grade very well compared to other young players.

So, how worried should the Devils be about Hughes and the Rangers feel about Kakko?

Even with the murky 2020-21 NHL season far away, there’s a lot to chew on.

Where Hughes and Kakko struggled similarly as rookies

When you look at the classic box score stats, both Hughes and Kakko underwhelmed. Hughes scored seven goals and 21 points in 61 games. Meanwhile, Kakko produced 10 goals and 23 points in 66 contests.

Unfortunately, things get worse when you dig deeper.

Via Evolving Hockey, you can see that Hughes’ underlying stats argue that his failures can’t be blamed on a bad Devils team alone.

Hughes rough rookie RAPM
Hughes rough rookie RAPM

Frighteningly, Kakko grades even worse in most areas based on Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Kakko rough rookie season RAPM
Kakko rough rookie season RAPM

As Shayna Goldman noted at The Athletic (sub required), Kakko wasn’t just disappointing for the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. He suffered some of the worst results of any NHL skater, including only grading worse than Brendan Smith among Rangers by a variety of metrics. And Hughes didn’t fair much better.

For a truly crunchy breakdown of the stylistic limitations of both Hughes and Kakko, check out Mitch Brown’s “video room” series.

In comparing the two through Brown’s studies, you’ll note some significant differences between Kakko and Hughes. But one interesting similarity is that Brown calls for both Kakko and Hughes to shoot more often, or at least more effectively.

For the Devils, there might be a little bit extra comfort that Hughes didn’t get many bounces in that regard. While Hughes is a pass-first player (sometimes to a fault), one would hope that he’ll manage better than the 5.7 shooting percentage he slogged through as a rookie. Kakko’s puck luck was closer to league average (9.2 percent), but perhaps he can still benefit from more of a gunslinging mentality?

Ultimately, the hope is that Hughes and Kakko can convert some of that power play confidence to when things are tighter 5-on-5.

Differences before, and in the future

While Hughes and Kakko struggled in broader similar ways, they bring remarkably different strengths (and weaknesses) to the table.

In the simplest terms, it’s easiest to imagine Hughes becoming dominant on the rush, while Kakko strikes as a player who may flourish the most when he can slow the play down.

Amid all of Hughes’ struggles, his skating and smarts combined to make him an immediate beast in transition. Early on, Kakko seemed closer to average, as you can see in this “All Three Zones” comparison (CJ Turtoro’s visualization with Corey Sznajder’s painstaking tracking work):

Hughes Kakko all 3 Zones
Hughes Kakko all 3 Zones

On one hand, Hughes and Kakko both need to work on some similar things. Improving timing, how they “think the game,” and becoming less predictable would all help the two forwards.

But if you’re thinking more from a “toolkit” standpoint, their wish lists might be divergent. Theoretically, you’d want Hughes to get stronger, as he already possesses game-breaking speed. On the other end, the Rangers cross their fingers that Kakko can improve his skating, while we’ve already seen glimpses of the puck-protection power game that turned heads before he was drafted.

Personally, Jack Hughes’ skills feel a bit more “translatable” to the NHL game than Kakko’s. At least how it’s played today.

Help from their friends

Ultimately, a lot is likely to hinge on how the Devils support Hughes and the Rangers help Kakko respectively.

Interestingly, the 2020 NHL Draft could help both Hughes and Kakko in different ways.

The Devils may have found an ideal future partner for Hughes in potentially lethal sniper Alexander Holtz. On paper, Hughes’ playmaking could mix with Holtz’s shooting like chocolate and peanut butter. (Granted, Holtz may instead become a partner-in-crime for the Devils’ other top pick center, Nico Hischier.)

In Kakko’s case, he’s not even the flashiest flavor of the month. By winning the 2020 NHL Draft lottery, the Rangers were able to pick Alexis Lafreniere first overall. One would think that Lafreniere could take some of the heat off of Kakko’s development.

In Goldman’s piece, she saw some promise when the Rangers lined Kakko up with Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome. While it was only a three-game sample, Goldman viewed Kakko as one of the Rangers’ brightest spots while they were bludgeoned by the Hurricanes. Kreider, in particular, could make a lot of sense as a running mate with Kakko, being that Kreider’s quietly carved out a spot as an analytics darling. Having Kreider and Kakko hog the puck could be good business if they found a center that could clean up opportunities from all of that mayhem.

However each team approaches things, both Hughes and Kakko can’t do it alone. They’ll need linemates who can finish their chances, and maybe cover some of the bases they can’t quite reach.

At minimum, the Devils need to find snipers for Hughes, whether that finisher ends up being Holtz or someone else.

Plenty up in the air

Under normal circumstances, it would already have been tough to gauge how two 19-year-old talents will develop. These unusual circumstances only add more variables that could impact the development of Hughes and Kakko.

As Corey Masisak noted in a recent Athletic mail bag, it’s unclear what’s directly next for Jack Hughes. It doesn’t sound like the Devils decided yet if they’d allow Hughes to participate in World Juniors training camp. It’s possible that the Rangers may mull a similar debate with Kakko.

One could picture any number of ways that could go wrong. After all, Hughes last played on March 10, while Kakko only got three games in back in August. They could both be very rusty whenever the 2020-21 season might start.

But maybe it’s not all bad.

Both Hughes and Kakko could come into next season far more rested. Maybe with more time, they’d be able to put those rookie struggles behind them? More practically, both could make greater gains in strength and skating.

As much as this all comes down to putting Hughes and Kakko into positions to succeed, it’s also on them to prove that their rookie seasons were merely rough starts. For all the sophomore slumps in sports, there are also surges, such as Tyler Seguin‘s game blossoming.

How much improvement do you expect to see from Hughes and Kakko next season? And what kind of ceiling does each player have down the line? At minimum, they have to be much, much better than the players we saw in 2019-20.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons originally appeared on NBCSports.com