After Rasmus Dahlin went all season last year as the consensus first-overall 2018 NHL Draft choice, it is quite obvious that sometimes players are too far ahead of their peers to be caught. For a while, it seemed that Jack Hughes would be a similarly advanced player whose status as his year's first-overall pick would be unchallenged.
However, having studied many of the forwards touted as current first-round selections, I have come to the conclusion that Jack Hughes isn't that far ahead of the couple of players in the next-highest tier and that the 6'1'' 180 lbs Finnish forward, Kaapo Kakko of Liiga's TPS Turku, has great potential to eclipse Hughes.
This is the first year ever when numerous video scouting services have offered such a large catalogue of shift-by-shift videos prior to the start of the draft season: KillEmAll83's ProspectShifts.com, the Burgundy Rainbow Draft Shift By Shifts on YouTube, Hockey Prospects Center on YouTube, and feebster's bigwhite06 channel on YouTube all provide extensive video documentation of draft-eligible players, making the practice of scouting far more accessible than ever before. ProspectShifts has multiple shift-by-shift videos and coverage of over thirty 2019 draft-eligible players so far.
With these additional resources alongside my own full-game viewings, I've seen quite a few of these players. So far, I have developed the following tiers, and paragraphs about each player can be found in some of my other HF posts in recent weeks:
Tiers as of Sept. 9, 2018 (based on forwards I've viewed):
A. Elite offensive potential:
1. Jack Hughes
2. Kaapo Kakko
3. Alex Turcotte, Vasili Podkolzin
B. Top six potential:
4. Dylan Cozens, Ryan Suzuki
5. Simon Holmstrom
6. Peyton Krebs, Alex Newhook, Kirby Dach
7. Raphael Lavoie, Daniil Gutik
C. Bottom-six or high-risk:
8. Blake Murray, Arthur Kaliyev, Josh Williams
9. Nolan Foote, Matthew Boldy
10. Maxim Cajkovic, Trevor Zegras, Yannik Valenti
D. Low potential:
11. Jakob Pelletier
The vision, puck skills and anticipation of Group A are above that of any of the Group B players I have seen. As of right now, I see the Group A players as the cream of the crop -- exceptional thinkers who are always around the puck, who can anticipate where the play will go next and put themselves in a position to intercept the puck or involve themselves in the play.
Kakko is a puck control monster with his size and reach; Podkolzin's shooting skills, meanwhile, are the best of the bunch. Turcotte is a takeaway magnet with a keen sense of where to be, great lower body strength to push through obstacles, in addition to great wheels and shiftiness to move the puck up the ice. I like the two-way awareness of the Group A2 players (Turcotte, Kakko, Podkolzin). Hughes is the sneakiest and quickest, but perhaps the lightest and most pass-first of the group. He doesn't have the same power as the others, but possesses the most finesse -- he's something of a McDavid-Gaudreau hybrid.
The rest have some significant faults and, I find, lesser puck skills than the top four.
I came away unimpressed with Newhook's overall game and do not consider him among the elite four. He is quick, but even at the BCHL level does not dictate the pace of the game enough when he is on the ice. While Hughes, Turcotte, Kakko and Podkolzin anticipate plays and think ahead of the opposition's next move, Newhook is a very reactive player -- not proactive. As a result, he spends a lot of time away from the puck and doesn't dominate plays. He moves the puck well when he has it due to his great speed and can distribute the puck fairly accurately, but he doesn't drive the offense enough. He doesn't separate the opposition from the puck enough, nor does he put himself in a position to get in their way. Turcotte, Podkolzin, and Kakko actively disrupt their opponents. Newhook isn't the type of player who has the puck on his stick all the time; even at the BCHL level, I've so far only seen a player who one needs to watch patiently for something interesting to happen. I don't place as much value on the types of players who have great wheels but don't touch the puck enough and spend a lot of time chasing. He is more of a speedy opportunist than an active, dominant line driver.
Newhook's influence on the ice seems to contradict his statistical record. I don't think he reads the game as quickly as Group A. I think he would have looked a lot more like Krebs and Dach last year if he had played in the WHL. Krebs is another high-speed player.
Podkolzin impresses me for reasons besides his goal-scoring prowess. He has a very strong defensive mindset without the puck, and is quick to support his defense, getting in lanes on the backcheck to cause his opponent problems and blocking shots. He is a 200-ft player. He also has exhibited puck skills beyond anything I've seen from any player so far outside of Hughes, Turcotte, and Kakko. He is always engaged in the play, has a physical edge to his game, and is strong on the puck despite being only 165 lbs. He plays with determination and is quick on his skates -- agile, and capable of jumping up into the play quickly with an explosive step. His ability to anticipate and put himself in good defensive position to turn the play around is a lot like Turcotte's. His shot release really only adds to his strengths. He's intelligent. There is so much to like about his overall game.
For the record, Hockey Prospect ranked Podkolzin #9 in June. Their rankings are generally among the best. I see him jumping further up their list by the time of their next publication. Button isn't the first to have Podkolzin ranked in the Top 10.
I like the overall two-way package that Cozens provides, with his size, speed, and power. I don't see enough finesse from him to categorize him among the top players, though. He plays a very conventional power center type of game that could definitely make him a two-way, first-line center in the NHL one day. From an offensive perspective, though, he hasn't shown elite offensive abilities. He has a good shot, moves the puck quite well, is dangerous around the net, can make power moves around opponents and rag the puck around, but I don't see the same offensive skill from him that I see from my Top 4. I have him as the fifth-best forward right now because of his complete game.
Dach leaves me wanting more sometimes. He has a better offensive skill set than Cozens but doesn't have anywhere near the same motor or determination. He is another player who, like Newhook, hovers around a lot without touching the puck. When he has it, he can reach a fairly good top speed, and he is very dangerous around the net. He is a pass-first type of player who can hold possession of the puck along the boards and feather skilled passes to teammates. However, he doesn't have the exceptional mind of the Group A players to be able to anticipate, intercept plays and turn the game around on a consistent basis. He is another reactive player whose offensive instincts seem a little more pedestrian than the top group. His defensive game isn't better than the top players on my list either, nor are his puck skills. He is a big man with good puck control, but not the dynamic puck skills of the top group.
I agree with Broberg being the best-looking 2019-eligible defenceman at the Hlinka. I thought he outshone Byram to quite a significant degree; I thought 2020-eligible defenceman Justin Barron looked better than Byram as well. However, above I've only ranked the forwards I'm very familiar with at this time.
Simon Holmstrom is not a name that many talk about as a top pick right now, but I strongly believe that he could be a Top 10 selection based on what I've seen. He exudes potential -- an excellent skater who is very comfortable with his edges a la Nico Hischier and Filip Zadina. He is a puck hound who roams around the ice to provide puck support. At 5'11'', 175 lbs, he is decently sized, but he is very mobile and always very engaged in the play. He makes crisp passes and has shown good stickhandling abilities, although he could work on becoming a more deceptive one-on-one player. Out of all of the players I have seen so far, I rank him ahead of most -- just below Cozens and Suzuki. He plays for HV71 of the SuperElit U20 league, and last year greatly outpaced all other 2019-eligible players in that league in scoring, including Maxim Cajkovic. I think he's a Top 10 talent in this draft class. His downside might be that he takes a lot of risks with the puck and sometimes makes ill-advised decisions. He has a great skill set and anticipates well, but when he has the puck he sometimes gambles and loses. If he can tidy up his one-on-one game, he'll be great. I thought Filip Zadina was guilty of too many high-risk plays last year.
Blake Murray, a center with the Sudbury Wolves, is another player I've watched. I think he'll end up playing a bottom six role in the NHL. He has a large frame and skates well -- he is great at transitioning the puck up the ice and can play a reliable defensive game. I don't think he handles the puck all that well nor is he consistently dangerous off the rush. He tries to force passes sometimes and doesn't create much offensively. I categorize him ahead of Foote and Boldy but below Gutik and Lavoie.
Some people have Trevor Zegras ranked highly. I disagree with those assessments. Zegras has the same 5'11'', 160 lbs build as Jack Hughes, and is a mobile skater, but he lacks high-end stickhandling and vision. He looks great cruising through the neutral zone, but he does not demonstrate enough offensive ability to overcome his size. There is not enough offensive substance to his game.
I've also seen Arthur Kaliyev, and I think he will be a bottom nine winger. He is sturdy with the puck and skates fairly well for his 6'2'' frame, but I sense a lack of creativity in his game. He plays a very vanilla type of game with decent net-front presence and a good shot, but passes from him don't always connect the way that they would from the elite talents, and his neutral zone transition game is mediocre.
Hughes and Kakko separate themselves from the rest of the pack because of their combination of high hockey IQ, ability to always involve themselves in the play, ability to anticipate plays well, as well as their elite stickhandling abilities, and excellent skating. No other player besides these two has such an ideal package of talents and abilities to elevate them into this very exclusive category in 2019. However, while I like both players very much, Hughes possesses some deficiencies that I do not see in Kakko's game.
Although Jack Hughes is a superbly talented stick handler and a very shifty skater, I find that he tries to avoid contact whenever he carries the puck; when he skates and dekes around opposing players, he isn't pushing his way past them so much as he is trying to squeeze his body around them. There is a difference between the two, as one requires precision and no obstacles to slow one down; the other -- active, powerful maneuvering -- is to be elusive, but to be able to push past obstacles. Both players can cut around opponents and drive to the net, but Kakko has a much more powerful frame. Kakko has gained some speed this year, and is impressively agile on his skates. As a stick handler, Hughes is very poised and is always in control, but he is physically weaker on the puck than Kakko; whenever he is clipped by an opposing body, the puck starts to get away from him. Kakko, like Hughes, possesses quick hands, but controls the puck better in traffic, especially along the boards. This is aggressive maneuvering, not passive.
Hughes is a pass-first playmaker with a shot that lacks power. Like his brother's shot, Jack's shot might be his worst attribute. Kakko, on the other hand, has already exhibited one of the better wrist shots of his draft class, but is also an excellent playmaker.
Both players are agile, but Kakko benefits greatly from his puck protection skills along the boards to complement his shiftiness and make him extremely difficult to separate from the puck. Hughes does not possess particularly strong puck protection skills, despite his ability to elude opponents in close quarters.
In terms of defensive play, I consider Hughes' game to be the worst of my group of elite players. While Kakko, Turcottte, and Podkolzin are all very responsible in the defensive end, Hughes is inattentive in the defensive end and sometimes doesn't do enough to help prevent the opposition from pressuring his team. This can cause trouble.
Hughes is a very slick player. Compared to Kakko, who thrives in all areas of the ice and dominates possession, however, Hughes plays a softer game with feebler qualities. He is not quite as complete a player as Kakko is, nor is he starting to look that far ahead of Kakko offensively. Kaapo Kakko has had an excellent start to the 2018-19 season in the Finnish Elite League against adult players. The highest age group that Hughes has ever played against was at the World Junior Summer Showcase, where he looked decent.
If Kakko continues to have success this season in Liiga, I think there could be a shift in the consensus opinion about this topic by the 2019 midterm rankings.
Watching footage of these two players back-to-back from this summer makes their differences quite apparent. This is footage of Jack Hughes from Team USA's game against Team Canada at the World Junior Summer Showcase in early August. The footage of Kaapo Kakko is from late August in the Champions Hockey League against Malmo Redhawks of the Swedish Elite League.
I would love to hear your opinions.