Hughes, Kakko unfazed ahead of first Rangers-Devils game

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Thursday night’s game between the Devils and Rangers (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) will be the first of four meetings this season, and there will be a special significance to the Metropolitan Division matchup.

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the top two picks in last June’s entry draft, will be facing one another for the first time in the NHL.

The Rangers’ light schedule to begin the season has them eager to get going again following a 4-1 loss on Saturday to the Oilers. They’re in better shape at the moment than the Devils with a 2-1-0 start, but their focus, and Kakko’s focus, isn’t on the much-hyped meeting between the two young stars.

“Of course I’m excited to play again after four days off, but it’s not like me against Jack Hughes,” Kakko said Wednesday. “It’s the Devils against Rangers.”

“[Kakko] is 18 years old, I’m sure him and Hughes have had their eye on each other for a long time,” said Rangers head coach David Quinn. “I’m sure if you put them under truth serum, they’re both excited to face each other. But both teams are looking for a win, and hopefully that’s way more important than any individual matchup. I’m pretty sure it is.”

Both have yet to really get going offensively. Kakko has one goal on four shots in three games, while Hughes is pointless through six. Devils head coach John Hynes remains encouraged by what he’s seen so far from the 2019 top pick.

“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,” he said. “He’s just a step away from really creating some pretty good offense.”

The two players will be linked forever, much like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. They’ll always be compared to one another, especially given their status as division rivals playing 14 miles apart.

That outside noise, however, won’t be a distraction for either with the focus on their team’s play and not their own.

“It was a big deal when those teams got the first and second picks,” said Hughes. “I mean, it doesn’t happen often when those picks go to rivalries, rivalry games. I think the media makes a big deal out of it, but for me and him I’m sure it’s just about our teams and trying to get a win.”

The Devils have plenty to improve upon as they seek their first win following an 0-4-2 start. Monday’s collapse to the Panthers led to the decision to put assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald on Hynes’ bench for another set of eyes and ideas. After a summer where general manager bolstered his roster with additions like Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds, seats will only get hotter if the results don’t improve. What better way to begin a turnaround than two points against a division rival?

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Thursday with analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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