Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons

Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons
Getty Images
1 Comment

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
via Evolving Hockey

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

Kakko rough rookie season RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

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
via CJ Turtoro and Corey Sznajder

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.

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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

Getty Images
1 Comment

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

tampa bay lightning
Scott Audette/Getty Images
2 Comments

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
Julian Avram/Getty Images
2 Comments

TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

marc-andre fleury
David Berding/Getty Images
2 Comments

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.