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Heading into the World Hockey Championships, Jack Hughes was the consensus No. 1 pick. He's been considered as much for years now.
While Kaapo Kakko closed the gap this season, I don't think he surpassed Hughes. A historically dominant performance at the U18's, theoretically, should have reaffirmed that and given Hughes some breathing room.
Unfortunately, for many people, it quickly evaporated.
Kakko has come out firing at the Worlds, recording five goals (although two were empty-netters) and 18 shots through three games while leading the charge for Finland.
Hughes' start is not as flattering. He has not found the scoresheet yet, nor has he played many minutes for Team USA.
This has led to quite the shit storm.
Those previously on the Kakko train are quick to use these, uh, three games as all the evidence necessary to prove he is the superior player. Meanwhile, some in Hughes' corner have quickly flipped to the other side.
I find that to be, in a word, ridiculous.
Not ridiculous that someone would be higher on Kakko. I think Hughes should be the top pick, but I've noted time and time again the gap isn't large (before the tournament, those in Hughes' corner suggested I gave Kakko *too* much credit). Ridiculous that someone could form such strong opinions, or change entirely, on the back of a few days of hockey.
Why? Well, there's recency bias, and the fact nothing we have seen in this tournament is new or unexpected.
Finland is not rostering any NHL forwards. Not one. Kakko was always going to play a big role, and production usually follows opportunity. Kakko deserves credit for making the most of his ice, but it's not like it was hard to come by. And, no, this is not me back-tracking.
Hughes was never, ever, going to play that much for USA. Jack Eichel makes $10 million a year and recently put up 80+ points. Dylan Larkin makes $6 million a year and recently put up 70 points. Those guys are obviously going to play significantly more minutes than someone who was 17 when the tournament started. The only center you'd hope Hughes would get more reps than is Luke Glendening. It just so happens that Glendening is a favorite of Jeff Blashill, his NHL head coach, and that's who is running the bench for USA.
Put another way, Hughes isn't seeing limited ice because he isn't playing well enough, or is lacking talent. He's seeing limited ice because there are stars at his position on the roster, and the lesser guys (like Glendening) probably wouldn't commit to flying to the other side of the world for a tournament if they weren't going to play a meaningful role.
As much as anything, Hughes joined the team to learn from NHL players and coaches – and to do so alongside his brother. The opportunity isn't there for much else.
That's why anyone comparing Kakko's output, aided by a shooting percentage of nearly 30%, while playing big minutes to Hughes' while seeing limited ice, and using it as a slight to the latter, is completely out to lunch.
It was not unexpected. At all.
As for the 'nothing new' aspect I referred to earlier on, that mostly pertains to Kakko's strength and Hughes' lack of it.
People continue to be amazed by how well Kakko handles the puck and fights through contact. Anyone who has previously seen him play knows that is a big plus, and that's factored into any and all evaluations.
Here is an excerpt from my Kakko blog in mid-April
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.
Listing that as a reason he should shoot up to the top spot doesn't make much sense. Again, everyone knows Kakko has Hughes beat handily in that area and yet the latter still entered the tournament No. 1 on almost every board.
Coincidentally, it's not surprising Hughes has taken some big hits, or come out on the wrong end of some board battles.
Here's an excerpt from my Hughes blog in mid-April
Hughes has the puck a lot and he's not big. This does result in him taking some uncomfortable hits once in a while (kind of like Nico).
If you want to rank Kakko ahead of Hughes, go ahead. But if you're basing your opinion on three games, in which nothing new or unexpected has transpired, then I hope you're not in charge of making important decisions in your field of work.
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