NEW YORK — Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko were the clear favorites all along to be the top two picks in this year’s NHL draft. So far, the 18-year-olds have struggled to generate a lot of offense in the opening weeks of the season.
Kakko, selected second by the New York Rangers after New Jersey took Hughes at No. 1, broke through with his first NHL goal on Saturday. Hughes nearly got his first on Monday.
Now, the two youngsters will get a close-up look at each other on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) when the Rangers visit the Devils for the metropolitan-area teams’ first matchup of the season.
Despite Hughes’ struggles getting on the scoresheet, Devils coach John Hynes likes the way the teenager is learning and working on improving his game.
”He’s really understanding how hard you need to compete in this game and how much puck battles matter, attention to detail when you don’t have the puck, and he’s making strides in those areas,” Hynes said. ”He’s just a step away from really creating some pretty good offense.”
Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, now part of the Oilers’ front office, cautioned about the high expectations immediately placed on young players who come into the league as top draft picks. He pointed to Edmonton star Connor McDavid, who was a No. 1 pick in 2015.
”It’s harder than people think,” Gretzky said. ”There’s a little bit more pressure on these young guys than people think. Connor’s been in the league a few years, he’s lived up to it. … Young Hughes is going to be a fine hockey player. I’ve watched him play quite a bit. He’s 18 years old, he’s in the right situation.
”It’s just going to take him some time, he’s going to get his feet wet, he’s going to get some growing pains but all in all you can tell his skill level and his passion for the game.”
Gretzky also talked about the adjustments a player like Hughes has to make as he adapts to the professional game and the higher level of competition.
”Now you’re playing against men, you’re playing against the best players in the world,” he said. ”Let’s be honest, we had fun and we were pretty good but these kids today with the level of skill and size and speed, they’re so much better than when we played. That’s not a knock against us. That means the game is growing and getting better all the time.”
With the Devils leading the Panthers 4-2 on Monday, Hughes had a chance to add to the lead. He got a bouncing puck on the left side of the goal, and batted it off the post and over the stick of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was diving back, but the puck went along the goal line and hit the right post and stayed out.
Hughes, who had three goals and an assist in four preseason games, remained without a point in the regular season and New Jersey ended up squandering a three-goal lead in a 6-4 loss to Florida to fall to 0-4-2.
Two days earlier, Kakko got on the scoreboard with a nifty forehand-to-backhand move to give the Rangers an early lead in a 4-1 loss to Edmonton, New York’s first loss after opening the season with two wins.
”It was a special way for him to score,” said linemate Ryan Strome, who set up Kakko on the rush. ”A great goal, a great move. Hopefully the floodgates are open for him. He’s got all the tools to do it, so it should be fun to watch.”
Rookies who have already stood out in the opening weeks of the season include:
– Victor Olofsson, RW, Buffalo. The 24-year-old has five goals and two assists in six games and set an NHL record with his first seven goals all coming on the power play. He had two goals and two assists in six games last season. His record-setting goal got the Sabres started in a 4-0 win against Dallas on Monday that improved Buffalo to 5-0-1.
– Cale Makar, D, Colorado. Selected No. 4 overall by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft, he has six assists in five games, with four coming on power-play goals. Makar, who will turn 21 on Oct. 30, has helped the Avalanche open the season with five wins for the franchise’s best start since beginning with six wins in 2013-14.
– Sam Lafferty, C, Pittsburgh. With the Penguins missing forwards Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust, Lafferty has stepped up with three goals and two assists – all coming in the last two games, road wins against Minnesota and Winnipeg – to help push Pittsburgh to 4-2-0.
– Ilya Mikheyev, RW, Toronto. The 25-year-old Russian, signed as a free agent in May, has two goals and three assists in seven games. Mikheyev had a sensational goal Saturday night against Detroit as he drew Jimmy Howard out far from the crease, went to his left and fired it into the wide-open goal.
– Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington. After coming over from the KHL, Samsonov spent last season with Hershey of the AHL. As Braden Holtby‘s backup, the 22-year-old won his first two starts, limiting the Islanders and Stars to one goal each with a .961 save-percentage. In relief duty against Colorado on Monday, he gave up two goals on 21 shots and took his first loss.
The Colorado Avalanche have opened the season with five straight wins. … The Devils have started the season with six straight losses (0-4-2). … Buffalo’s Carter Hutton, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer have won four straight starts to open the season, Carolina’s Petr Mrazek and Boston’s Tuukka have won their first three.
Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk is 0-5-0 with a 4.44 goals-against average in five starts. … The Devils’ Cory Schneider is 0-3-0 with a 4.08 GAA in four starts, and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick is 0-3-0 with a 6.43 GAA in three starts.