Jack Hughes

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Where do Hughes, Kakko fit in respective lineups?

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The top two picks from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft have both signed their entry-level contracts. Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko signed his deal with the New York Rangers on Thursday, while American center Jack Hughes inked his contract with the New Jersey earlier this morning.

Barring an injury, both Hughes and Kakko will be in their teams’ respective lineups once the regular season kicks off in October. But how will they fit into those lineups? Will they both get to play an offensive role for their team this year?

Let’s start with Jack Hughes. 

The Devils have to sign restricted free agents Pavel Zacha, Mirco Mueller, Will Butcher and Connor Carrick, so they still have almost $20 million in cap space to do so. Even if they bring every one of those players back, they still have to money to add a quality player or two via free agency (there’s not much left) or via trade.

Currently on their roster, the Devils have Nico Hischier, Zacha and Travis Zajac down the middle. When Taylor Hall was healthy last season, he spent a good chunk of time playing with Hischier, so there’s no reason to believe that those two won’t be reunited again once the training camp starts. That duo could either play with free-agent signing Wayne Simmonds or veteran Kyle Palmieri.

Of all the forwards on the Devils roster, Hischier spent the most time on the ice with Palmieri, so a top line of Hall, Hischier and Palmieri could terrorize opposing teams all season. If head coach John Hynes decides to play those three together, what’s left for Hughes?

Again, assuming they don’t add a major piece to the roster between now and the start of the season, Hughes could end up centering the second line with Wayne Simmonds on one wing. Simmonds isn’t the same player he was a couple of seasons ago but playing a big-bodied veteran who isn’t shy about throwing his weight around next to Hughes could be a good idea.

Playing the 18-year-old on a second line would also allow him to get “easier” matchups, as teams will likely focus their energy on stopping the top three offensive weapons.

Hughes will also certainly contribute on the power play, as he has the speed and offensive instincts to be a difference maker in that area right away.

The Devils have been conservative with Hischier’s ice time in his first three seasons (he’s averaged 16:19, 18:23, and 18:06). Will they automatically give Hughes 20-plus minutes per game? That’s unlikely. But Hughes might be more NHL-ready than Hischier was at the same age. So don’t be surprised if he’s somewhere in the 17 to 19-minute range when his first year is over.

How about Kappo Kakko?

Well Kakko’s adjustment to the NHL might be a little smoother because he’s probably going to break into the league as a winger. Playing at this level at 18 years old is never easy, but the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about the defensive responsibilities of playing center should help facilitate offense.

The Rangers have made some improvements to their roster this summer. Their biggest splash came in free agency, as they were able to sign Russian forward Artemi Panarin to a long-term contract. Panarin, who immediately becomes the best winger on the roster, could line up next to Mikka Zibanejad, who is the best center on the team. Head coach David Quinn could add Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich to that line, or he could also place Kakko there depending on how aggressive they want to be with their prized rookie.

After Zibanejad, the Rangers are extremely young down the middle. Brett Howden and Lias Anderson are 21 and 20 respectively, and they’ll be leaned on heavily to contribute offensively this season. But do the Rangers really want to line up a rookie with another young player trying to learn how to play center? Probably not.

So there’s a very real chance that Kakko could get quality even-strength minutes next to Zibanejad and Panarin. If that doesn’t end up happening, he’ll likely play with a young center and a veteran like Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich.

Like Hughes, Kakko will see a good amount of time on the power play. The 18-year-old has put up points at every level which says a lot about his offensive upside. Giving him added time and space on the man-advantage could make his first year a season to remember.

We should witness a great battle for the Calder Trophy this season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

With Hughes in Devils camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With Jack Hughes in the New Jersey Devils’ development camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith.

Hughes was the No. 1 overall selection in the draft last month and much is expected of the playmaking center. It’s almost certain he will be on the Devils’ roster when the regular season opens in October and the packed-crowd at the team’s training rink in the Prudential Center roared on Wednesday when he was introduced before a four-team, 3-on-3 competition.

Much like the other three dozen young players at the weeklong gathering, the 19-year-old Smith received polite applause.

What people tend to forget is Smith was the Devils’ first-round pick a year ago – 17th overall – and he nearly made the roster after a tremendous training camp.

A year later, Smith may be ready to take that next step. The puck-moving defenseman has added about 8 pounds since last year and he is coming off a great season in the Western Hockey League. He had seven goals and a career-high 62 assists, the second-highest single-season total in league history.

Devils coach John Hynes said Smith appears to have matured in the past year, noting his body is thicker and he looks fit.

”He is not a wide-eyed kid here that is taking everything in for the first time,” Hynes said of the WHL defenseman of the year. ”It’s the second time he is coming into the culture of what we are doing. He sees the needs and knows what you are talking about. He seems a lot more confident. I don’t want to say on a mission, but he seems a little more focused as opposed to taking everything in for the first time.”

Hynes expects Smith to be a motivated player when training camp starts in September.

Smith will be trying to break into a veteran defensive unit. It’s led by captain Andy Greene and recently acquired Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick are returning from last season’s team.

Despite being a little bigger and stronger, Smith doesn’t believe he has lost any quickness or agility.

”I like to get the puck and give the puck to the forwards,” Smith said. ”My dad always tells me ‘Get the puck to the skill and then support it.’ They’ll make the play and then join the rush in the second wave and create offense.”

Smith refuses to speculate when he will play in the NHL. He saw action in the preseason last season and was sent back for another year of junior hockey, helping the Chiefs get to the semifinal round of the WHL playoffs.

”I feel confident in myself, that I can play,” he said. ”Whenever the Devils want me to. It’s up to them. I have to be the best I can possibly be and come out and compete, compete for a job. It’s not easy to make the NHL. It’s up to them.”

NOTES: Hughes’ team won the 3-on-3 competition, posting a 1-0 win over a squad that included Joey Anderson, his roommate for the camp and a player who saw some time with the Devils last season. … Xavier Bernard, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had the only goal in the deciding game. Akira Schmid, a Swiss native who was a fifth-round pick last year, had the shutout.

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Top pick Jack Hughes skates at New Jersey Devils camp

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Top draft pick Jack Hughes was a little disappointed on his first night with the New Jersey Devils at their development camp for young players.

Sitting around a TV with Joey Anderson, fellow USA Hockey National Team Development Program teammate and Devils’ draft pick Patrick Moynihan and Matt Hellickson, Hughes was hoping to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays win the All-Star Home Run Derby.

Guerrero ran out of gas in the last round and lost to New York Mets’ rookie Pete Alonso on Monday night.

”It was a fun event to watch. It was pretty cool,” said Hughes, who stayed in Toronto after the draft.

There was nothing disappointing for Hughes or the Devils on Tuesday as the NHL team opened their development camp at the Prudential Center.

The 18-year-old playmaking center gave the Devils coaching staff and media a good glimpse of all the skills that made him the No. 1 pick in the draft last month. He buzzed up and down the ice, snapped shots on goal and made passes in tight spots that found open teammates.

Of course, it was just a 45-minute practice and there was almost no hitting. But Hughes showed a lot of the talent that many expect to be on display when the regular season opens in October.

”It was good to get out here and get in a little skate and get our feet under us,” Hughes said after the start of the camp which will end on Saturday. ”It was good to come out there with the jersey on for the first time.”

Hughes, who is wearing No. 86, skated with three dozen other players in the camp, including nine of the 11 players drafted last month. The others are mostly young players who were in the AHL last year and may have had briefs stays with the Devils during the course of the season.

Hughes’ hope this week is to learn about playing in the NHL and learning his way around his new home rink.

On the ice, Hughes looked relaxed and right at home.

”None of this is possible without the ice,” Hughes said. ”That’s where I have had the most fun and what I love to do. Like I said, none of this is possible without the game of hockey. I know that.”

Hughes is looking forward to some 3-on-3 competition on Wednesday and scoring some goals. He had 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA development program.

”I am focused and ready to play in the NHL,” Hughes said. ”That’s my goal. I want to be successful. It’s not really a thing I think about. It’s kind of an expectation for me.”

Moynihan, who was taken in the sixth round and will attend Providence College next season, has no doubt Hughes will succeed.

”He is an amazing person, first and foremost, and he is a great player,” Moynihan said. ”With his ability to see the ice, the way he skates, I think he can do anything with this game.”

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Rangers, Islanders, Devils all creating buzz in offseason

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The New York Rangers’ rebuild got a big boost with the additions of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. The New Jersey Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick and traded for P.K. Subban to improve their defense.

The Islanders are coming off a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and a run to the second round of the playoffs for the second time since 1993. Now, they return the core of their lineup for the second year under Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and president/general manager Lou Lamoriello.

With the opening of training camps a little more than two months away, the three New York-area teams – which haven’t made the playoffs in the same year since 2007 – are buzzing with excitement.

”It’s awesome just in this area, even south Jersey with the Flyers, but Islanders, Devils, Rangers have real strong teams,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. ”It’s an exciting time for all the teams in this area.”

New Jersey had the top pick for the second time in three years. In 2017, the Devils took Nico Hischier at No. 1 and got off to a strong start before earning a wild card. They took a step back last year and missed the playoffs, and then won the draft lottery.

Hughes and Kakko were the consensus top two picks, with the Rangers certain to take whichever player New Jersey passed on.

”They’re both really good players and it’s hard to pick one over the other,” Shero said, ”because Kakko is a great kid, a hell of a player, it’s good for the rivalry.”

The Rangers and Islanders both tried to sign Panarin, the top player available when free agency opened on Monday. The 27-year-old Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5-million deal, reportedly spurning more money from the Islanders to join a Rangers team that has missed the playoffs two straight years after a seven-year run that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

”The rivalry will never change, which is great for the area, great for hockey,” Lamoriello said. ”As far as the ingredients to each team, all I worry about is the New York Islanders and competing against ourselves to be the best we can. I’m not losing any sleep over what anyone else is doing.”

After losing out on Panarin, the Islanders calmed their anxious fan base by re-signing captain Anders Lee and adding goalie Semyon Varlamov to replace Robin Lehner – a favorite in his one season in New York.

Last month, the Islanders inked center Brock Nelson and forward Jordan Eberle to new deals, keeping two players that were instrumental in their run to the postseason.

”We feel very good about our team,” Lamoriello said. ”We feel very good about our core players, having them all back for the most part is very important.”

Getting Panarin was a big move for the Rangers after they went into rebuilding mode at the trade deadline in 2018, dealing veterans for young players and draft picks. They continued that strategy at the trade deadline this year.

However, the Rangers have been busy improving their defense since the end of the season. They signed Adam Fox, acquired the rights to restricted free agent Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg and also signed forward Vitali Kravtsov and goalie Igor Shesterkin – two Russians they drafted in previous years.

”This by no means alters our plan,” Rangers coach David Quinn said of the contract for Panarin. ”He’s part of the rebuild and part of the process that’s been going on over the last year and a half.”

Shero liked the competitive vibe that was injected into the rivalry with the top two picks of the draft, much the way it happened in 2017 with the Flyers, who took Nolan Patrick at No. 2. He believes the division matchups make it more exciting, with the young players going to teams that play each other more often than in the case of other recent top picks that ended up in different conferences.

”It’s great for the area,” Shero said. ”It’s great for the rivalry and whether you play four or five times, we hope to play more against teams like the Islanders and Flyers and Rangers because that means we’re in the playoffs.

”You see all three teams here … it makes for a real good rivalry and a great division.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

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Devils eager for offseason splashes to help deliver wins

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VANCOUVER — The New Jersey Devils entered the off-season with one marketing plan. After April 9, the night they won the NHL draft lottery, those plans changed. Two and a half months later, the morning after they selected Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, they acquired P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators. Those plans changed once again.

“The news over the last 24 hours will challenge our marketing and content team and everyone else to ramp it up,” Devils president Hugh Weber told NBC Sports during draft weekend in Vancouver. “But we’ve been preparing behind the scenes, adding resources and getting things in place preparing for success, preparing for more demand. The team will be ready. What that actually looks like in terms of campaigns and all that other stuff, I’m not sure yet. Ray’s not done yet.”

Weber was the first person in the organization to know that the franchise had won the lottery and the right to make the first overall selection. The lottery process played out behind closed doors hours 90 minutes before the television broadcast announced the results. There, Weber and the other NHL team representatives were sequestered watching as the ping pong balls were pulled and the unique combinations were drawn. 

Through the excitement of knowing the Devils would be picking first, Weber couldn’t share in that joy as the reps were forbidden from leaving the room until the broadcast ended and he certainly was going to withhold his exuberance in front of the teams that lost out on the top spot.

Once the lottery knew became public, Devils fans were eager to look toward the 2019-20 NHL season. Post-lottery, the franchise moved into the top 10 in the league in new ticket sales. After drafting Hughes and later acquiring Subban, they had sales staff working to capitalize on the excitement.

“I haven’t gotten numbers but there’s been a lot of activity and I think you’re going to see in a week’s time we anticipate an acceleration of not only people who were on the fence that didn’t renew yet, were kind of waiting to see, but also those that have been with us over a long time who said, ‘OK, I get it now, you guys are using that cap space just as you said you would and let’s get after it,'” Weber said.

[MORE: Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey]

While they’ve had time to prepare a plan for introducing Hughes to the market, Subban is his own marketing team. With over one million Twitter followers and 900,000-plus more on Instagram, his personality and work in the community will help sell the Devils.

The additions of Hughes and Subban not only upped the excitement levels in the Devils’ fan base, but the New York Rangers’ acquiring Jacob Trouba and drafting Kaapo Kakko second overall revived a rivalry between the two franchises. The Devils have long been on the outside in a crowded New York metropolitan market and they’re hoping this past weekend, plus whatever happens during the free agency period, will allow them to gain ground on their regional rivals.

“When hockey is competitive and the rivalries are strong in New York, I think it’s good for the NHL,” said Weber. “The Islanders are no slouches, they have a good core coming. You’ve got Lou [Lamoriello] and you’ve got the Rangers and us, even the Flyers now with [GM] Chuck Fletcher, there’s some good narratives happening in and around the Metropolitan, and we’re glad. If you stack up the teams in the East, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a very competitive conference. I think that’s just going to push us all. But generally, those types of rivalries, those types of stories are good for business.”

The Devils missed the playoffs last season coming off a surprising 2017-18 campaign that saw them play postseason hockey for the first time since 2012. Last season wasn’t necessarily a step back in Weber’s eyes. He viewed the playoff year as playing with “house money” and, according to their plan, the franchise is ahead of schedule.

“We never saw this as a linear progression,” Weber said. “We looked at are we making progress, are our prospects and our pipeline making progress, are they developing a team, does [head coach] John Hynes have a foothold on the culture here, is there a plan that we can continue working at? The answer was yes, which is why we extended Ray [Shero], we extended John, we extended the coaching staff, we extended virtually everybody on the hockey staff because this part of a linear, longer plan. We believe that patience in sports is one of the great arbitrage because too often teams and/or partners and owners get too impatient and want to make a change just for change’s sake. 

“I wouldn’t say the lottery pick did anything more than to say it kind of accelerated a little bit because when you have the potential of the fifth or sixth pick, you might not see that player on your roster for a few more years, where now you have an impact player, an elite player that’s going to potentially contribute right off the bat. It helped us accelerate our plans and put things in place, not to rush anything. We’ve said over and over again there are no shortcuts to the top. There are shortcuts to the middle, but we don’t want to be in the middle.”

Keeping stability in the organization is key to the Devils in seeing progress. They believe that Hynes has helped create an identity for his team and that despite a playoff-less season, he kept them competitive through the end of the 82-game schedule. When Shero was hired in 2015 he made it a goal to ensure the franchise was respected again. A draft weekend splash certainly got people talking and excited about the on-ice product for next season. There’s still the Taylor Hall extension to take care of and then more work to be done when free agency opens, but the organization sees itself on the right track. But in the end the results will speak for themselves.

“In terms of fans and how fans have seen us, we have to earn that and it’s going to take some time to have the consistency,” Weber said. “Now moves like we did [this weekend], those are big splashes and they’re great stories, but unfortunately great stories don’t win games. It’s going to come down to team performance. We’ve been bullish, even without the additions that we’ve had, is that to see the progression of these prospects coming up and watching them being close to it. We think there’s going to be a few offshoots out of there that will surprise some people as well.”

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils take Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick
Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
Devils-Rangers rivalry gets boost thanks to Hughes, Kakko

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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.