Kaapo Kakko is off to an electric start to his season in the Liiga. How close is he to Jack Hughes?
Despite commonly being ranked #2 for the 2019 NHL Draft by the majority of the industry, Kaapo Kakko fell to the 3rd spot in Bob McKenzie’s draft ranking, which is the best representation of the opinion of NHL scouts that is made public, with Dylan Cozens stealing the #2 placement.
First off, I want to express that I don’t think this a good representation of the skill level and potential of these prospects. It better displays the recency bias that plagues NHL scouts than anything else, since Cozens was excellent at August’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.
In my eyes, as well as those of several other analysts that I’ve spoken with, Kakko is considerably closer to consensus #1 prospect Jack Hughes than he is to Cozens (who is an excellent prospect in his own right).
Kakko has gotten off to an incredible start to his season in Finland’s top professional circuit, the Liiga, which is the fourth or fifth best hockey league in the world. One point in the Liiga is equivalent to just under 0.47 NHL points, according to work done by Emmanuel Perry.
In his first four games, Kakko has recorded five points, including two goals. That puts him on pace for 75 points over a full 60 game Liiga season, and is good for an NHLe of 48, which is remarkable for a prospect his age.
Is this sustainable? No, a five game sample isn’t nearly enough to project how a player will do over the remainder of the season. However, Kakko has already put himself in a truly fantastic spot statistically. Even if Kakko scores at a league average rate over the remainder of the season, he’d still clock in at 0.5 points-per-game, putting himself in the same territory as Jesse Puljujarvi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Based on his track record, he’ll be significantly above that, potentially even on a similar record to Alexsander Barkov, and likely in Patrik Laine territory at the very least.
However, we can do better than that to approximate how Kakko will do over the remainder of the season. In 2017-18, the Finnish winger played in the Junior A SM-Liiga.
This table displays some players that had comparable draft-minus-one seasons in the Jr. A SM-Liiga, and their performance in the Liiga the following season. On average, these players’ Liiga P/GP was 39% of their production in the Jr. A SM-Liiga the year prior.
Based on that, Kakko would be expected to score at a rate of 0.566 points-per-game this season in the Liiga, which is nearly identical to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s production this season.
However, we shouldn’t completely disregard what he’s done so far this year. If we assign a 70% weight to Kakko’s projection and 30% to what he’s actually done in his four games so far this season, we get an output of 0.711 points-per-game.
That’s exceptional territory for Kakko. It’s essentially equal to what Patrick Laine did in his draft season (0.72 P/GP), and stronger than the scoring rates of Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, Jesse Puljujarvi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Teuvo Teravainen.
Now we have Patrik Laine as a strong comparable for Kakko. That’s very promising for the young Finn on its own– Laine scored 44 goals and had 70 points last season– but it also allows us to begin to draw similarities to the 2019 draft from 2016.
The 2016 NHL Draft was a big one for the NHL; it was the year that two strong contenders were made. Auston Matthews lifted the Toronto Maple Leafs from the depths of the league, while Patrik Laine was exactly the kind of offensive threat the Jets needed to become a very serious contender.
In 2019, it looks like we’ll see another American-Finn combo at the top of the draft: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. We’ve already addressed how Laine appears to be an excellent comparable for Kakko, but things get even better.
A while ago, I wrote about Jack Hughes. In that piece, I pinned him down to be somewhere between Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, but closer to Matthews. In fact, Matthews would be Hughes’ top comparable from his D-1 season.
Interesting. The top of the 2019 draft looks nearly identical to that of 2016. That will be an interesting storyline to follow as the season progresses.
So What Seperates Kakko From Jack Hughes?
Not as much as you might think. Hughes is an incredibly intelligent playmaker that’s a constant threat, but Kakko is insanely talented himself. The Finn utilizes his body exceptionally well, using his frame and reach to protect the puck. He can slice through a defence this way, identifying holes and slicing through them, using that puck protection to prevent defenders from even having a chance at a poke check. His intelligence and hands shine whenever he possesses the puck, and knocking him off of it is no easy feat.
Barring a surprising demotion, Kakko will spend his 2018-19 season in the Finnish professional league.
Jack Hughes, meanwhile, will play for the USNTDP U18 program, where the level of play is criminally lower than his skill level. It’s possible that his play becomes somewhat stagnant there, because he won’t ever be facing anybody that can challenge his level of talent.
If Kakko does well in the Liiga, that could be the straw that works against Hughes, and could be responsible for him falling out of the #1 position. Kakko will have proven himself against men, whereas the highlight of Hughes’ resume will only feature domination of weak competition.
For reference, the NHLe league translation factor for the Liiga is over 6 and a half times that of the USNTDP.
We’ll get back into the whole Hughes vs Kakko thing in a minute, but first let’s spend a little more time on Kakko’s game.
As I just mentioned, Kakko’s offensive game revolves around his puck possession and protection.
He’s not protecting the puck in the sense that one might think, by holding a defender off with his body while he drives towards the net, but he’s using his stick to keep the puck away from areas where it’s susceptible to checks. This is what allows him to slice through the defence with relative ease, even though the slot is a fairly crowded area.
Kakko does an excellent job of penetrating the slot.
He’s an efficient player; generating high quality opportunities rather than just throwing the puck on net from anywhere. That kind of ability to find his way into the slot with possession is a big one, and it’s a mashup of a bunch of different abilities that makes that possible. First off, he has the intelligence to identify lanes and weak spots waiting to be exploited. Even more impressive however, is how he identifies potential lanes, and is able to open them up. The method of creation can vary; it might be a toe-drag like in the clip above, a head fake, or a fake shot. Whatever it is, Kakko usually does it to perfection.
This isn’t to say that Kakko can’t score from outside the slot either, because he definitely has the shot for that as well.
So that’s a quick look at Kakko’s style, now we can return to our earlier question. What seperates him from Jack Hughes?
Skating; skating is the big difference. Hughes is a simply fantastic skater; one of the best at his age I’ve ever seen. He’s always the fastest player on the ice, he’s exceptionally agile, and he can attack with his feet in so many ways. But for Kakko, skating isn’t a strength. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a weakness, but he’s never going to be a threat just from his skating alone, like Hughes can be. His edge work is still quite good, but his straight-away speed is nothing special.
Hughes is a stronger playmaker– his playmaking intelligence is off the charts, the way he’s able to create and identity passing lanes is exceptional– but Kakko might be more of a scoring threat.
We’ve gone over a few different topics, so let’s recap.
- Based on a combination of his performance last season and what he’s done in a small sample in 2018-19, Kakko can be expected to score at a rate of about 0.7 points-per-game in the Liiga this season, which is nearly identical to what Patrik Laine did in his draft season.
- The Jack Hughes-Kaapo Kakko combination at the top of the 2019 draft is very similar statistically to the Auston Matthews-Patrik Laine duo in 2016.
- Skating is the largest separator between Hughes and Kakko. Hughes is a stronger playmaker, Kakko a better scorer.
- The top factor that will work in Kakko’s favour is that he will likely have proven himself in a professional league, whereas Hughes will not have shown his skills against top competition.
To put it extremely simply, the gap between Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko isn’t as large as commonly thought.