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Unless you've been living under a rock, you're well aware the New Jersey Devils will be picking 1st overall in June's draft.
Jack Hughes will almost certainly be Ray Shero's selection, however, there is a chance – no matter how slim – the Devils will go against the consensus and take Kaapo Kakko atop the draft.
Knowing that, I wanted to write about Kakko in-depth – just as I did previously for Hughes
What the eye test says
• Kakko possesses a powerful shot and is capable of beating goaltenders from a distance (more so than Hughes). I've seen him do it numerous times. That's not his go-to way of finishing, though. Kakko is much more of a drive the paint shooter than a perimeter shooter. He lives around the net.
• Kakko is a plus-playmaker. He has the power to thread passes through tight windows, and the finesse and vision to lead teammates into space. You don't have to be unmarked to get the puck from Kakko. He is capable of passing you open.
• Kakko is a monster in battles. So often I've seen him combine his sturdy frame with good positioning/angling to completely body a player off the puck. He reminds me a lot of Barkov in that regard.
• Kakko is very committed defensively. He's elite at stick-checking and pick-pocketing opposing players, and he'll always give maximum effort on the backcheck. He's competitive in all three zones. I think he could play center at the next level.
• Kakko is extremely difficult to get the puck from. He has elite stick-handling ability and can deke his way out of trouble in tight spaces. He also has the strength and power to fight off defenders that challenge and initiate contact. Keep in mind said defenders are men so we can bet on that translating.
• The knock on Kakko, if you will, is skating. Don't get me wrong, it is not at all like he's moving in quicksand. He gets around perfectly fine. He just doesn't have the high-end acceleration or speed to gain separation on a consistent basis.
• One area that impacts his game a little bit more than others, I think, is through the neutral zone. His speed won't *force* defenders to back off. He can beat them one-on-one at times, but you obviously can't deke out a defender every time up the ice. His stick-handling ability and strength help mitigate the lack of top-end speed, but it's worth noting.
What the (micro) stats say
I've tracked seven of Kakko's SM-liiga games this season. I will track more – and hopefully some games at the Worlds – but I'm comfortable there's enough here to provide insight into his game and back up some observations I've made.
Note: all data 5v5.
• The 54.44 Corsi For% is really impressive (oddly enough, he posted a 54.5 CF% on the year). He is playing against men in a professional league. He's also playing big minutes – generally 18-20 a night, and not in a sheltered role. To continue to tilt the ice in his team's favor like that at such a young age is remarkable. He might not be dynamic through the neutral zone, but he does a ton of little things that help his team control the shot share. I think he'll be able to help drive possession in the NHL.
• Kakko dumps the puck in a fair bit. Sometimes because he's forced to; sometimes because he doesn't seem wired to regroup and try again like Hughes. The ability to gain the opposition's blue line and set up shop is one area Hughes is clearly better in.
• Kakko's contribution percentage (40.82%) isn't crazy-high like Hughes' (53.19%) and there are a few reasons for that. One, he's probably not expected to facilitate as much. Two, he is playing tougher competition – Hughes can do whatever he wants at times. It's harder to do that vs professional players that are much older. Three, he's not as dynamic through the neutral zone and that can take the puck out of his hands.
While the gap in contr% is fairly sizeable, those factors are worth considering. It's also not a large sample size of data. Even if Kakko ends up in the 40% range, it's worth noting Hischier was involved in 40.45% of on-ice attempts in Devils games I tracked this season and we know the impact he made.
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