Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons

Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko: Pondering their rough rookie seasons
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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.

Blue Jackets’ Patrik Laine out 2-4 weeks with triceps injury

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine is out 2-4 weeks after straining a triceps muscle in practice, yet another blow to the last-place team in the NHL that has been hampered by injuries all season.

The Blue Jackets announced Laine’s absence before their home game against the New York Islanders.

They already have 454 man-games lost to injury, one of the highest numbers in the league, and have a record of 22-41-7.

Laine missed two separate stints with elbow and ankle injuries in the fall. The 24-year-old Finn is the team’s second-leading scorer with 52 points in 55 games.

Columbus has been top defenseman Zach Werenski since November because of a torn labrum and separated shoulder. Forward Sean Kuraly recently went on injured reserve with a strained left oblique muscle that will likely keep him out the rest of the season.

Tortorella earns 700th career win, Flyers top Wild 5-4

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PHILADELPHIA — John Tortorella needed one word to sum up if 700 career wins meant anything to the Flyers coach.


OK, then. Good thing the brusque Stanley Cup winner isn’t paid by the word.

James van Riemsdyk scored the only goal in a shootout, and Philadelphia beat the Minnesota Wild 5-4 on Thursday night for Tortorella’s 700th victory.

Tortorella is 700-573-181 in 1,454 games as an NHL head coach. His 700 wins rank 12th in NHL history and his career games rank ninth in NHL history. He led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004. In his first season coaching the Flyers, Tortorella joined Peter Laviolette as the second American-born coach to win 700 games.

“I think the culture’s kind of changed around here,” Flyers forward Joel Farabee said. “I think he’s done a really good job of keeping the group together.”

Farabee, Scott Laughton, Rasmus Ristolainen and Tyson Foerster scored for Philadelphia. The Flyers have two straight games for the first time since Jan. 9-14 when they won three straight. Yeah, it’s been that kind of season.

“Farabee’s starting to pop, he’s looking real good. Tyson is looking real good,” Flyers defenseman Tony DeAngelo said. “This is all about laying the foundation for next year but we get a lot of money to do this job. It’s something we love, so we’re gonna go out and give it our best every night.”

Matt Boldy had two goals for the Wild, and Oskar Sundqvist and Marcus Foligno also scored.

“We weren’t very good. They were good,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “We knew they were playing well, they played well tonight. We were loose. We were not firm, turnovers, it didn’t look like our hockey club.”

The Flyers and Wild were tied 1-all at the end of the first period, 3-3 at the end of the second and 4-4 headed into OT.

The rebuilding Flyers have been plucky of late. They had won two of three coming into the game, with the lone loss in overtime. They showed some of that grit in the final two periods, scoring late tying goals.

“It’s a credit to their group, to their coaching staff, that they’ve got them playing the right way,” Evason said.

Boldy poked a backhander past Carter Hart with 6:28 left for a 4-3 lead. The Flyers, playing more for the No. 1 pick and for pride, tied the game on Foerster’s second goal of the season.

Farabee tipped in Cam York’s shot early in the second for a 2-1 lead.

The Wild got going when Boldy ripped one top shelf past Hart for his 24th goal of the season that tied the game 2-all. Foligno scored his seventh goal for the 3-2 lead.

Ristolainen buried a hard slapper from the blue line on the power play for the tying goal with 23 seconds left in the second.

“I think it’s good to try to lay this foundation, kind of get ready for next year. You see guys getting confidence,” DeAngelo said.

The Flyers only played ahead in the first period.

Laughton scored off the rush for his 17th goal of the season and a 1-0 lead. Sundqvist celebrated his birthday with a deflection for the tying goal with 3:24 left in the period.

The Flyers had been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL until the start of this seven-game homestand (3-2 so far). They have scored at least three goals in every game and at least four in the last four.

“We have definitely gotten to the net better,” Tortorella said. “We have spent a lot of time on the ice and with tape as far as getting to that area.”


Wild: Host Chicago on Saturday.

Flyers: Host Detroit on Saturday.

Crosby reaches 30-goal mark, Penguins knock off Avalanche 5-2

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DENVER – Sidney Crosby wasn’t even aware of reaching yet another milestone. He’s simply locked in on helping the Pittsburgh Penguins make a 17th straight postseason appearance.

Jeff Carter had a pair of goals, Crosby scored on a nifty backhand shot in the second period to reach the 30-goal mark for an 11th season and the Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-2.

Crosby moved into a tie with Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux for the most 30-goal seasons in Penguins history. Another milestone reached – it came as news to him.

“I think the most important thing for me is just try to be consistent and if that reflects that great,” said Crosby, who turns 36 in August.

Even more, Crosby’s the first player in league history to post a 30-goal campaign at 18 years old and again when he was 35-plus, according to NHL Stats.

“It means I’ve been in the league for a while,” Crosby cracked. “That’s been the thing that’s driven me since since I got into the league – in your first year, you want to prove that you belong. Even at 35, I still think you want to prove you belong, because it is a younger league.”

Jake Guentzel also scored and Bryan Rust added an empty-net goal for the Penguins, who snapped a four-game slide and moved back into a wild-card spot in the East.

“It’s definitely a big one for us, for sure,” Guentzel said. “Defending champs, coming to their building, you know how good they are. Top to bottom, we defended hard and that’s what we have to do at this time of the year.”

Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry stopped 28 shots in improving to 11-4 this season against teams from the Western Conference.

J.T. Compher and Devon Toews had goals for the Avalanche, whose six-game winning streak was halted. Nathan MacKinnon had an assist to extend his home points streak to 18 games.

It was a missed opportunity for Colorado, which could’ve pulled into a three-way tie with Dallas and Minnesota in the Central Division with a victory.

“We knew they were going to play with urgency,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “But I didn’t feel like there was any reason why we couldn’t, either. … We didn’t get it done. Hopefully we get another one.”

Alexandar Georgiev made 40 saves, including several critical ones in a second period controlled by the Penguins, who outshot the Avalanche by a 21-9 margin. It could’ve been more than a 3-1 deficit heading into the third period.

Toews’ power-play goal made it 3-2 with 9:32 remaining. But Carter wrapped up the win with his first multigoal game in the regular season since Jan. 11, 2022.

“I’m thrilled for him. We’re all thrilled,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Carter. “He cares about the Penguins. He wants to win, and he wants to contribute in helping us win so we couldn’t be happier for him.”


Bednar was appreciative of the three-year extension he signed Tuesday that goes through the 2026-27 season. In his seventh season, he’s the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper (March 2013) and Sullivan (December 2015).

“It’s not a forgiving league or sport, for the most part, but obviously that’s part of the reason why I’m so grateful and thankful,” Bednar said. “Because there were times over my tenure that got a little hairy and management could have made another decision. But obviously they didn’t.”


Avalanche D Cale Makar missed a second straight game with a lower body injury. “I still have him as day-to-day,” Bednar said. … F Darren Helm returned after missing 64 of 69 games this season with a lower-body injury. … Penguins D Jeff Petry (upper body) skated in the morning but sat out his third straight game. … The Penguins are 11-1 against the Central Division this season. … Penguins standout Evgeni Malkin assisted on Guentzel’s goal to reach the 50-assist mark for a seventh time in his career.


Penguins: At Dallas on Thursday night.

Avalanche: Host Arizona on Friday night.

Report: Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed jerseys

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CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys before Sunday’s Pride Night game against Vancouver because of security concerns involving a Russian law that expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country.

The decision was made by the NHL organization following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to the AP on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the move.

The Blackhawks have worn Pride warmup jerseys previously and donned special warmup jerseys on some other themed nights this season. There had been ongoing conversations about a Pride jersey with the players, according to the person who talked to the AP, but the organization made the decision to hold Pride Night without the jerseys this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in December that significantly expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. Chicago defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country.

The decision by the Blackhawks comes after San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys. The New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

Russians Nikolai Knyzhov and Alexander Barabanov wore the Pride-themed jerseys for the Sharks on Saturday.

While Chicago will go without Pride warmup jerseys this year, the team has planned a variety of activities in conjunction with Sunday’s game. DJs from the LGBTQ community will play before the game and during an intermission, and the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus also is slated to perform. There also are plans to highlight a couple of area businesses with ties to the LGBTQ community.