How does Kaapo Kakko stack up to Jack Hughes?

Every year the talks between the consensus first and second overall ranked players heat up after the WJC. That is no different this year, as scouts have started to weigh in on the Jack Hughes vs Kaapo Kakko comparisons.

The gap between Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko is tighter than it has ever been– as Jack Hughes has underwhelming slightly for the USNTDP in a year where he was expected to obliterate records, Kakko has been able to step up his play in the Liiga to a level similar to Patrik Laine’s in his draft season a few years ago. As Kakko rises, the separation between the two has begun to wane.

Some people will be hard-pressed to admit it, but the Hughes vs Kakko debate has become a conversation that must be had. It may not be neck and neck, but, at the very least, it’s something worth talking about it.

Most years, the season begins with a clear-cut top prospect for the draft. This year, Jack Hughes was that prospect. But after getting off to a fantastic start in the Liiga, and managing to hold that success, Kakko has created something to entertain surrounding the first overall pick.

Kaapo Kakko is a large, powerful winger with remarkable skill on the puck. He’s exceptional at creating space for himself, and makes efficient use of that space with an electric toolkit. He has exceptional hands, and is able to manipulate defenders to create lanes to the net, as well as shooting and passing options. He’s just so good at maneuvering tight spaces, and almost impossible to knock off the puck. While lethal as both a passer and a shooter, Kakko is typically classified as a playmaker. He’s able to handle the puck for long periods of time in the offensive zone, waiting for lanes and holes to open up in the defensive structure of the opposition. Once that happens, he’ll strike– usually with a lightning-quick turn to face the net before dishing off a crisp, accurate pass to a teammate in scoring position.

Jack Hughes is a dynamic forward that plays a game revolving around his agile skating ability and intelligence. With an east-west style, Hughes is in no hurry to bring the puck towards the net, and will hold onto possession for as long as it takes for an offensive opportunity to open up. In transition, he’s able to slice through the neutral zone with exceptional speed and remarkable lateral agility, generating controlled zone entry after controlled zone entry. In the attacking zone, he utilizes his offensive vision, locating open teammates. He always carries the puck in a position where he can get a quick pass or shot off, making him a deceptive force to defend that can attack in a multitude of ways.

Let’s go into a deeper comparison of the players’ games, using clips from the recent World Junior Championships, as well as some league play, to better communicate the differences.

Skating

Hughes is a fantastic skater — mobility is arguably his greatest strength — and he makes that evident every time he steps on the ice. He’s able to accelerate quickly, using a combination of zig-zagging crossovers and regular strides, and he has a top speed that is unparalleled among players his age that would be high-end even by NHL standards.

Observe this play from USA’s first game at the World Junior Championships. After receiving the puck near his own blueline, he turns on the jets and carries it into the offensive zone. It’s next to impossible to prevent a zone entry from Hughes — try to step up on him at the blueline and he’ll blow right by you — and that shows here, as the defender is pushed back deep into his own zone.

As Hughes circles the net, he’s able to continue to accelerate with a series of pushes with his right leg. This doesn’t seem like much, I know, but being able to speed up using pushes like that is a tremendous tool in Hughes’ puck protection arsenal. Rather than glide, which would cost Hughes speed, or use crossovers, which would disturb his stability, making him easier to knock off the puck, Hughes can stay low and balanced while continuing to accelerate off his edges.

Kakko is no slouch on his feet either, but he isn’t as strong of a skater as Hughes. With a wide, powerful stride, Kakko is able to accelerate past defenders and win races to loose pucks all over the ice. He has excellent form on his crossovers, allowing him to accelerate while protecting the puck and holding a stable base.

Let’s take a look at an example. Kakko brings the puck behind his net, winding it up for a rush. As he sets out from the safety of the trapezoid, we see him use crossovers to gain speed, and he’s able to blow right past Filip Westerlund, who is a strong skater himself. By the time Kakko hits his own blueline, he has established a stick length of separation from Westerlund.

There’s a lot more than straight-away speed to Kakko’s profile. He’s tremendous on his edges and extremely agile, abilities that he puts to great use deep in the opponent’s zone.

This play is a fantastic example of that. Kakko starts out facing his own net; a split-second later, he’s going back the other way. Watch how the defender reacts to this pivot– he’s hopelessly outmatched in terms of skating ability, and is forced to back off to avoid being beat. Kakko has already created space for himself, but he isn’t done yet. Recognizing that the defender has overcommitted towards his own goal line, Kakko turns to face the opponent’s net, and switches directions once again, and the defender is beat, having surrendered a lane towards the slot. Kakko takes full advantage of that lane, and sets up his teammate for an easy tap-in.

That’s a goal, created solely through Kakko’s exceptional edgework and agility. He’s so good at changing direction, and he’s able to use that to beat a defenceman several years older than he is.

Hughes is an elite skater, there’s no doubt about that. He has the clear edge in this category, but Kaapo Kakko has high-end wheels in his own right.

Intelligence

There may be an argument over which skill is of more importance to Jack Hughes’ game — skating or hockey IQ — but there’s little doubt that both are in the top two. Hughes is already a step ahead of everyone because of his skating, but he gains an additional edge from his intelligence. Hughes is excellent at anticipating the play, and consistently makes strong reads all over the ice. He has a remarkable ability to create lanes of attack and space for himself, and is able to identify open opportunities within the opponent’s defensive system. He projects to be one of the most intelligent NHL players once he makes it to that stage, likely as soon as next year.

As good as Hughes is in this category, Kakko is right with him. The Finnish forward possesses high-end offensive instincts. He’s always around the net, and it seems like he’s in the perfect spot to grab every rebound. When he’s on the ice, he’s a puck possession beast, able to anticipate loose pucks and cut off clearing attempts. In addition, Kakko is able to manipulate defenders and create lanes to the net, a very valuable skill for a player like him who makes his money right around the crease.

This assist from Kakko at the WJC shows unreal hockey sense. Kakko is racing for the puck, and not once does he look over towards the middle of the ice. But when he gets to the loose puck, he has the outstanding awareness to find Ville Heinola with a tape-to-tape pass in the centre of the ice. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around how the Finn knew Heinola was there.

Both Kakko and Hughes have remarkable internal processors, and Hughes has a slight advantage in this area but it’s close with Hughes better at creating passing lanes.

Puck Control

This is one area of the game where I feel that Jack Hughes actually struggles. Hughes has soft hands and excellent stickhandling ability, but this particular category extends beyond that. Apart from raw manipulation of the puck, we’re interested in puck protection and more broadly, the overall ability to possess the puck and the ability to avoid relinquishing possession of that puck.

Hughes may be a strong puckhandler, but I’ve found him to be quite susceptible to stick-checks. This is something I chalk up to lack of strength on the puck, likely stemming from his small stature. As opponent’s lift, slash, and pull at Hughes’ stick while he’s carrying the puck, he just doesn’t have the physical strength to hold his stick in place among the beating that it’s taking and fight through the checks.

On the other hand, this is the area of the game where Kaapo Kakko excels. He’s basically the polar opposite of Hughes in this department. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s proven time and time again against competition older than he is — whether that be at the World Juniors or during league games in the Liiga — that he’s just about impossible to separate from the puck.

Kakko receives a pass at around the red line that’s slightly ahead of him, forcing him to stretch forward to corral the puck. The defender, recognizing this, steps up on Kakko, but overcommits to the outside, giving Kakko the middle lane. Moving the puck to his backhand to avoid the stick check, Kakko easily blows by the defenceman. As the Finn takes on the next defender, his long reach comes into play. The defender tries a sweeping stick check, but Kakko is able to avoid this by holding the puck far on his forehand. As he tries to beat the opposition to the outside, he leans in towards the player while holding the puck as far onto his forehand as possible. In this position, it’s impossible for the defender to attack the puck without conceding a clear lane to the net.

This part is key. Kakko is very strong on the puck, and difficult to knock off of it when he is checked, but the most valuable piece of his puck protection is his reach. When Kakko is protecting the puck like this, there’s no way for the defender to take it from him. It doesn’t matter how big or strong the defenceman is; unless they’re a Zdeno Chara type player with a freakishly long stick, there is no way that the defender can maintain his position between Kakko and the net while simultaneously making a play for the puck.

Kakko is aware of this, and puts his reach to good use whenever he’s in possession of the puck. It’s common to see him holding the puck far out to either his forehand or his backhand whenever he’s in possession, and when he’s under pressure, it’s a given.

This area is one of Kakko’s greatest strengths, and one of Hughes’ few weaknesses.

Playmaking

He’s a dynamic, all-around talent, but if you had to assign a specific label to Jack Hughes’ game, it would be “playmaker.” There’s little doubt about that– just look at his stats this year. Through 25 games this year, 79% of Hughes’ points have been assists; just 10 of 48 points are goals.

Blessed with otherworldly vision and fantastic touch on the puck, Hughes is very good at identifying open teammates, and has more than enough passing skill to get them the puck. But what sets the American out from other strong passers is his ability to identify plays as they develop. He knows where his teammates are going, and he’s able to create space and passing lanes to not only get them the puck, but to give them as good of a chance of finishing the play as possible by opening up room on the ice.

This primary assist is an excellent showcase of Hughes’ playmaking talent. First, space and lane creation: by faking a slapshot, Hughes creates space for himself, as well as a passing lane to the eventual goalscorer. Then, his vision: Hughes is looking at the net, telegraphing a shot, but he’s able to sense an open teammate to his right and get him the puck right in his wheelhouse for a one-timer.

Hughes is an incredible playmaker off the rush, and is very dangerous in open ice, whereas Kakko makes his playmaking money below the goal line and in the corners, usually by breaking away from a defender and connecting with a teammate in the slot for a dangerous opportunity.

We’ve already seen some examples of his playmaking higher up in this article.

We saw this play, which shows off Kakko’s remarkable vision.

As well as this one, where Kakko is able to use his edgework and agility to open up an easy backdoor tap-in for his teammate.

Kakko’s game is geared less towards playmaking than Hughes’. Of his 20 points in the Liiga, 11 are assists, a 55% ratio compared to Hughes’ 79%.

There’s no doubt to me that Hughes is the stronger playmaker. He does an incredible job of creating passing lanes, he has truly remarkable vision, and his touch on the puck is well above average.

Scoring

We’ve already established that Hughes is much more of a playmaker than he is a scorer, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a scoring threat. Armed with exceptional hands in tight and an precise wrist shot, Hughes has more than enough finishing talent to capitalize on a significant amount of his opportunities. However, due to his pass-first nature, Hughes doesn’t wrack up enough personal scoring chances to score goals at an elite rate, and I doubt we’ll see him adjust his style. He’s already had ridiculous amounts of success as a playmaker, and I don’t expect we’ll see him make much of an attempt to become more of a scoring threat as he progresses further into his career.

Kakko is less of a playmaker than Hughes, but has more of a focus on goal scoring. Kakko loves to play below the goal line — we’ve talked at length about that — and is able to create scoring opportunities for himself from that area. He likes to set up behind the net and look for wraparound opportunities, and has made heavy use of this play, where he darts out from behind the net for a chance in tight.

Kakko is overflowing with finishing talent, possessing a heavy shot and fantastic hands, but the most dangerous part of his scoring profile is his offensive instincts. Kakko has a knack for finding soft spots in the defensive system, and ensures that he’s always an option for the puck carrier.

Here’s an example: Kakko cuts to the boards, feigning that he’ll pick up the puck as it’s shot around the boards. By doing so, he draws two defenders towards him. Now, Kakko has created space in front of the net. As his teammate picks up the puck down low, Kakko exploits this soft spot, and forces the defender to take a penalty to prevent a lights-out chance.

Kakko has nine goals in 27 games for TPS in Liiga play this year– 0.33 goals-per-game. That’s an excellent pace, not far off from Patrik Laine’s 0.37 G/GP in 2015-16.

Hughes has 10 goals in 25 games for the USNTDP, 0.4 goals-per-game. That isn’t much more than Kakko, and in a far easier league as well. I think it’s pretty clear that Kakko is the superior scorer.

Transitional Play

Both Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are very good at bringing the puck through the neutral zone. They’re both great skaters and puck carriers, and both have been leaned on by their teams at the World Juniors to advance the puck through the middle of the ice, with Kakko acting as the primary puck carrier for the breakout play of his own powerplay unit.

Jack Hughes is stronger in this area. When he gets going he is able to fly through the neutral zone untouched, while Kakko can run into some trouble if the defender plays him well.

A different aspect of the transitional game where Kakko does have a clear edge in on the forecheck. The Finn does a great job of forcing the puck-carrier to the outside, limiting their options and forcing them to either circle back or move the puck. Otherwise, the only way out of the zone is to outskate him, and that’s no easy feat.

Statistical Profile

At first glance, Jack Hughes’ stat line appears to be far superior to Kaapo Kakko’s. After all, Hughes has 48 points in 25 games, while Kakko has just 20 in 27 contests.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. The USNTDP is nowhere near comparable to the Liiga, where Kakko plays. The Liiga is a professional circuit with no age limit; the USNTDP plays against a mix of USHL and NCAA opponents. One of those sounds a little more difficult to produce in than the other, right?

Luckily, this doesn’t mean we can’t compare their statistics. By adjusting their statistics to account for league quality, we can simulate an even playing field for the two prospects.

Once league quality. comes into play, Kaapo Kakko’s basic statistical profile becomes more impressive than Hughes’. Production in professional leagues is very valuable, and that’s reflected here.

The Argument In Favour Of Hughes

Jack Hughes is a dynamic, offensively dominant forward with the potential to be an NHL superstar. He’s a stronger skater, a better playmaker, and more intelligent than Kakko. He has a longer track record as a world-class prospect, and a history of total dominance throughout his young career. He has more upside than Kakko– today’s game lends itself more to his fast, open-ice style of play, and if he can become stronger on the puck and do a better job of attacking the slot, his ceiling is nonexistent.

The Argument In Favour Of Kakko

Kaapo Kakko is better on the puck, better at putting the puck in the net, and far better in the corners and around the crease. While Hughes can come off as a perimeter player, Kakko has no fear of going to the net and is more than capable of consistently winning the physical battles associated with it. His statistical profile is superior, and Kakko is thought to have a higher floor than Hughes, since he already has a history of succeeding against men, and has proven that the physical aspect of his game can hold up against those bigger, stronger, and more developed than him.

Conclusion

It may be closer than it has been in the past, but I still think Hughes is the superior prospect by a visible margin. Skating is so important in today’s NHL, and Hughes looks like he’ll be one of the most mobile players in the entire league. There’s a significant amount of growth that still needs to occur, but the American could be a dominant NHL forward if that goes smoothly.

You just can’t pass on this kind of upside.