VANCOUVER — Expect Jack Hughes of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 team and Kaapo Kakko of TPS in Liiga to be the first two players off the board when the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft is held at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. The New Jersey Devils hold the No. 1 pick after winning the NHL Draft Lottery on April 9. The New York Rangers have the No. 2 pick and Chicago Blackhawks the No. 3 selection.
Rounds 2-7 is Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
Hughes (5-foot-10, 171 pounds), a left-handed center, led the NTDP with 112 points (34 goals, 78 assists) and a 2.24 points-per-game average in 50 games while averaging 21:00 in ice time this season. He holds NTDP records in assists (154) and points (228) and had a 2.07 points-per-game average in 110 games in two seasons. The brother of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes, Jack Hughes has been No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters since the start of the season.
Kakko (6-2, 194), a left-handed right wing, has been No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters all season. He averaged 18:11 of ice time in 45 games for TPS, scoring 38 points and leading the team with 22 goals despite being the youngest player on the roster. His 22 goals set a record for a first-time draft-eligible player in Liiga, one more than the 21 Aleksander Barkov scored for Tappara in 53 games in 2012-13.
“There are subtle differences in style of play between these two elite talents and both have a distinct fundamental advantage that will enhance their chances to step directly into the NHL with Jack Hughes being a master student of the game and Kappo Kakko having played and contributed at a pro level (in Finland),” director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. “In Hughes, you get the highly skilled, offensively talented center who plays the game with speed, quickness, elite hockey sense and an ability to execute at top speed while making those around him better.
“Kakko is the bigger power forward who plays effectively either at center or his off wing (as a left-handed right wing) where he showcases his strong playmaking ability. His hockey sense and skills, when combined with his size and strength, allow him to be an impact player in all situations.”
The drama in the first round begins with the Blackhawks on the clock at No. 3.
Hughes is one of seven players from the NTDP projected as a first-round candidate by NHL Central Scouting: center Alex Turcotte (5-11, 186) is No. 4 in their final ranking of North American skaters, center Trevor Zegras (6-0, 173) is No. 6; right wing Cole Caufield (5-7, 163) is No. 8; left wing Matthew Boldy (6-2, 196) is No. 9 and defenseman Cameron York (5-11, 172) is No. 12. Spencer Knight (6-4, 193) is No. 1 among North American goalies.
Never has there been more than three players selected directly from the NTDP by an NHL team in the first round of the NHL Draft. Additionally, there have never been more than four United States-born players chosen among the top 10 picks; Erik Johnson (St. Louis Blues, No. 1), Phil Kessel (Boston Bruins, No. 5), Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders, No. 7) and Peter Mueller (Phoenix Coyotes, No. 8) were the four Americans chosen in the 2006 NHL Draft.
Joining Hughes and Turcotte in the top five on Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters are defenseman Bowen Byram (6-1, 195, No. 2) of Vancouver in the Western Hockey League, center Kirby Dach (6-4, 198, No. 3) of Saskatoon (WHL) and center Dylan Cozens (6-3, 183, No. 5) of Lethbridge (WHL).
Byram, 18, was third among WHL defensemen in points (71) and first in goals (26) and game-winning goals (nine) in 67 regular-season games. He set a Vancouver record for most goals by a defenseman in a season and a WHL record with six overtime goals. He led all skaters with 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) in 22 WHL playoff games.
Dach, 18, is a high-skill playmaker who had 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) in 62 games for Saskatoon this season. He had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 10 playoff games.
Cozens, 18, was second on Lethbridge with 84 points (34 goals, 50 points) in 68 regular-season games and had eight points (four goals, four assists) in seven playoff games. He will try to become the third player born in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to play in the NHL, joining forward Peter Sturgeon, chosen in the second round (No. 36) of the 1974 NHL Draft by the Boston Bruins before playing six games with the Colorado Rockies in 1979-80 and 1980-81, and defenseman Bryon Baltimore, who wasn’t drafted but played two games with the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80.
Rounding out the top five among International skaters are right wing Vasily Podkolzin (6-1, 196; No. 2 in Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters) of Neva St. Petersburg in Russia’s second division; defenseman Victor Soderstrom (6-0, 182, No. 3) of Brynas in the Swedish Hockey League; defenseman Ville Heinola (6-0, 178, No. 4) of Lukko in Liiga; defenseman Philip Broberg (6-3, 200, No. 5) of AIK in Sweden’s second division.
Though Podkolzin is under contract for two more seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, Stubb said that shouldn’t deter NHL teams from choosing him early in the first round. He interviewed with 19 NHL teams at the NHL Scouting Combine.
“[Podkolzin] has it all: skating, shot, playmaking, speed and attitude,” Stubb said. “He plays with a lot of intensity and is a smart two-way player. He has all the tools necessary to become a star.”