We are slightly past the middle of the season, which gives us a solid sample size of individual performances. One of many areas to look at is the performance of the 2019 NHL draft class. Especially Devils’ fans — who we all know — had the first overall pick.
Only five of the 217 draft selections from last year have made their debuts, with three being the first few off the board: Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, and Kirby Dach. However, when evaluating whether the Devils made the right choice or not, it only comes down to Hughes and Kakko. As many know, Dach — who has had arguably the best season of the five prospects — was not an option. When we take a deeper dive into each’s season the answer of whether or not the Devils made the correct decision becomes readily apparent.
When examining Devils’ Twitter, you can deduce a few fans are becoming skeptical of Hughes. And rightfully so, as the rookie has struggled to get acclimated to the NHL.
He is currently on pace for 29 points in 74 games played, which would be the lowest point total for a first overall pick since 1999. This is when the Atlanta Thrashers’ first overall selection Patrik Stefan tallied 25 points in 72 games. Hughes’ RAPM chart below — which measures how he does in certain key areas compared to the rest of the league — is also not flattering.
However, there are aspects of the game where Hughes has excelled. He owns a relative Corsi for percentage (CF% Rel) of 1.72, which means when he is on the ice, the Devils are better than when he is off. His expected goals for (xGF%) of 48.66 isn’t great, but he ranks among the top of Devils’ forwards. In addition to these statistics, watching Hughes on a nightly basis shows a strong game. His speed is electrifying, and you can tell his playmaking ability is going to be brilliant as he further develops.
Many may argue — which is a valid point — that Hughes’ struggles can be pinned on his linemates. As playing alongside Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood for a large part of the season can be tough no matter who the player is. Hughes may not be there just yet, but as he develops, he will turn into an excellent player.
Thanks to a stellar World Junior Championship, as well as a World Cup, Kaapo Kakko vaulted his name into the conversation for the first overall pick. Ultimately, the Devils chose to go with Hughes, so Kakko fell to the Rangers at number two.
Like his counterpart, Kakko has spent his entire rookie season in the NHL. In 47 games, he has 17 points, as well as a -19 rating. He has primarily served in a middle-six role as a winger on the second power play unit. To say the least, the second overall pick has struggled immensely this season.
The RAPM chart above paints an extremely alarming picture, as he has experienced significant struggles in each of the five important categories. His 42.47 CF% is well below breaking even, as his 37.13 xGF%, which is one of the worst in the league, and his -8.9 GAR rating ranks him 770th, which is second to last of all qualifying league players.
These statistics all paint an extremely ugly picture that may make some even question if Kakko was the right pick at two. However, I wouldn’t overly panic if I am a Rangers’ fan as, like Hughes, Kakko has had below-average linemates and is extremely young.
As you can see above, the confirmation of Jack Hughes being the correct pick at first overall is more so due to the immense struggles Kakko has experienced. The chart organized directly above also shows how Hughes checks out better than Kakko in almost every category.
Now, do not make any mistake about it. Early struggles are usually apparent in many young rookies, such as the ones Hughes and Kakko are going through. But as far as the first half of the season has gone, Hughes has been a much better player than Kakko. This confirms that ex-general manager Ray Shero made the correct decision by not buying into recency bias and ultimately drafting Hughes first overall.