Maybe winning the NHL draft lottery wasn’t as big of a win for Devils

Ray Shero has a tough decision to make between Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. (Getty)
Ray Shero has a tough decision to make between Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. (Getty)

In a lot of draft years, there’s a clear No. 1 pick everyone is going wild for. In other years, it’s more of a Taylor/Tyler situation where what you see isn’t what the next team sees.

This year’s draft seems to be a lot more of the latter, with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko coming closer to a coin-flip decision as the year progressed. There’s a pretty good reason for this: Though Hughes set career scoring records for the U.S. National Development team, Kakko set the U-18 single-season goalscoring record for the Finnish men’s league.

Very quickly, the slam-dunk pick Hughes looked like as recently as the new year doesn’t seem like an easy decision any more. So with New Jersey winning the draft lottery, it has an incredibly difficult decision to make, one where it has a 50-50 shot of picking the better player.

To look back at the Taylor/Tyler debate (or, more relevant, the Nico/Nolan debate), I was heavily in the Camp Tyler group at the time and thought it was a bit of a mistake for an Oilers team with no real center depth to pass up a guy who would almost certainly become an All-Star. That wasn’t a slight to Hall, but if you see more value in a center than a wing, I think that’s always a reasonable take.

Seguin eventually panned out exactly as expected, and Hall of course became an MVP candidate a few times over. They’re both great, and that neither of their draft teams saw their quality as being a long-term help is more an indictment of Peter Chiarelli than anything against them. Most people, I think, recognize all this now.

But Taylor/Tyler felt a lot like an all-year thing, if you want to only limit it to the scope of their draft season. Hughes has been hailed as the No. 1 pick in the draft for a few years now, and that Kakko narrowed the gap seemingly in the last month and a half of the season (he went 9-2-11 in the men’s league since Feb. 16, not counting his pretty good playoff performance). Now everyone you talk to in front offices or on the scouting front say it’s a coin flip, but according to Bob McKenzie’s latest Insiderism, every team says, “It’s still Hughes but it’s razor-thin.”

By winning the draft lottery, New Jersey runs the risk of being the team that picked wrong, whereas the Rangers have the luxury of letting the chips fall where they may. A complaint I’ve heard more than a few times — which McKenzie also published — was that teams would like to see Hughes and Kakko go head-to-head in the World U-18s, but they can’t and it sure sucks! But that ignores the really important issue that Kakko isn’t playing U-18s because he made the Finnish men’s World Championship team.

That is to say, after breaking Sasha Barkov’s U-18 goals record in a men’s league (albeit alongside the Liiga’s leading scorer), he also had enough respect from the Finnish governing body to get put on the men’s team for a tournament they consider rather important. Hughes is relegated to playing with children, and he’ll probably do great, but unlike Auston Matthews and Kakko, he didn’t get to play against the grown-ups.

It remains to be seen whether Kakko sinks or swims in that tournament (and certainly his performance will drive his draft stock). You can say he disappeared for some stretches of the Liiga season, but he’s an explosive scorer who’s at least going to be a threat on the power play.

There’s also the question of drafting for need; Kakko is a center/wing who might not play the middle much in the bigs, but Hughes is a pure center. Kakko is big (6-foot-2 and growing) whereas Hughes is under six feet. Ray Shero has said the Devils need talent — everyone does — and this certainly gets them closer to what they need. Maybe not enough, but certainly closer.

It might also be a question of whether you want to run Hall-Hischier-Kakko as your top line for the next several years, or whether you want to go Hughes/Hischier down the middle for even longer. It’s not the worst problem to have.

But still, you can’t really envy Shero’s situation here because there’s a better-than-usual chance you get the choice wrong and gift the team picking second the top player of the draft. And that the better player goes across the river to an arch-rival. Any time you’re going first overall, you can’t afford to draft for need or based on size, just the guy you think is best. Whether you prefer Kakko (smart) or Hughes (riskier???), someone’s probably gonna kill you for it if you don’t get it 100 percent right.

But hey, if you’re picking second? You just did the best with what you could. And if you just happened to get the best player as a result, well, it’s a happy accident, but you’re not complaining.

So in this draft, maybe (barely) losing this draft lottery, with a razor-thin difference between Nos. 1 and 2, was more like winning. But then again, maybe not.


Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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