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N.H.L. Draft: The Devils, Sooner Than Expected, Have the No. 1 Pick Again


Only two years have passed since Ray Shero, the general manager of the Devils, made the No. 1 overall selection in the N.H.L. draft: Nico Hischier, then an 18-year-old center from Switzerland. Shero had not exactly planned on making another No. 1 pick this soon.

But the Devils missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons after forward Taylor Hall, the league’s most valuable player in Hischier’s first year, was limited to 33 games because of a knee injury, scoring just 11 goals. The Devils, with the third-worst record in the N.H.L., won the draft lottery again, so here they are, back at No. 1.

Heading into the first round on Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Devils appear to have two even better options with the No. 1 choice than they had two years ago, when they chose Hischier over Nolan Patrick, a center who was taken second by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Although Shero will not even hint at whom he might pick, the team will probably select Jack Hughes, an 18-year-old center who was born in Orlando, Fla., but grew up in Ontario, or Kaapo Kakko, an 18-year-old right wing from Finland.

“It’s on me,” Shero said, “but we feel very differently about this than we did two years ago.”

Hughes and Kakko are so highly regarded that it is almost as if Shero cannot go wrong, but there is a wrinkle this year: The archrival Rangers, who play 13 miles away, have the No. 2 pick and will probably select the player the Devils do not pick.

“When you try to grade players — the A’s, the B’s, the C’s — those guys are A’s,” John Davidson, the Rangers’ new president, said recently of Hughes and Kakko. “These don’t come along too often.”

The Devils are widely expected to take Hughes for a number of reasons, one of which is that he has flourished in the United States National Development Team for the last two years.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Hughes, whose mother and father played hockey, is small but extremely quick and is a prodigious scorer. He had 126 goalsin 192 games for three national development teams in the last two years and led the United States to a gold medal in the 2017 World Under-17 Challenge. (His older brother, Quinn, was the No. 7 pick, by the Vancouver Canucks, at last year’s draft.)

Kakko is a 6-2, 200-pound wing, who scored 22 goals in 45 games in his first season for TPS in the top professional league in Finland. Kakko has more experience in international play than Hughes, helping Finland win the world under-18 championship, the world junior championship and the world championship in a little more than a year.

Kakko is considered to be particularly adept at puck-handling and playmaking. He has skill and intelligence, but he also is big enough to make it difficult for opponents to knock him off the puck or away from in front of the goal.

Shero, who was hired four years ago, has tried to play down the significance of the pick, saying, “It puts pressure on any team with their first-round pick, but it’s not like the N.F.L. or the N.B.A., where you’re looking for a guy to step in right away.”

Hischier stepped in right away as a rookie in 2017-18, Shero pointed out, because the veteran center Travis Zajac missed the first six weeks after having pectoral surgery, and another veteran center, Brian Boyle, was sidelined for a month while being treated for chronic myeloid leukemia.

But Hischier has compiled 37 goals and 62 assists as the Devils’ top-line center in two N.H.L. seasons. Patrick has 26 goals and 35 assists and will be probably be pushed down the depth chart with the signing of Kevin Hayes, a former Ranger, this week.

Shero recalls bumping into Patrick near the dressing rooms after a Devils-Flyers game last season. When Shero asked Patrick what he was doing, Patrick replied, “Waiting for Nico.”

“They’re competitive as hell,” Shero said of the two players, “but they became close before the draft, and they’re buddies. It’s just how it is. Right or wrong, we did what we could do to find out all about these kids.”

The No. 1 pick carries a special significance: The last two centers taken first over all before Hischier were Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. McDavid, 22, has scored 128 goals and has won a Hart Trophy as most valuable player in four N.H.L. seasons with Edmonton; Matthews, 21, has 111 goals in three seasons, helping lead Toronto to the playoffs in each one.

The No. 2 picks in each of those seasons, Buffalo’s Jack Eichel in 2015 and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine in 2016, did not play in the same conference as McDavid and Matthews, let alone the same division. Or on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel, for easy comparison.

Shero said the Devils’ management and the scouting department had spent the better part of two years obtaining information about the players whom the team might pick at No. 1.

He said the draft lottery, on April 9, was “the earliest it’s ever been, so every team knows where it’s picking in the first round for a while, and that benefits everybody.”

The process includes seeing a potential No. 1 pick play in person a lot, watching a lot of video and talking to the player as much as is allowed — and not just about hockey but about personal things.

“Maybe he’s hurt,” Shero said. “Maybe he’s having girlfriend problems. Maybe his parents are getting divorced. So much is going on outside hockey. It’s part of doing the groundwork.”

Shero said the Devils felt very differently about the 2019 draft compared with the 2017 one. They are a substantially deeper team than they were two years ago, he said, and a culture has been established with Coach John Hynes.

The Devils have amassed 10 picks in this weekend’s draft, including two extra second-round picks.

Shero conceded that he might swing some more trades during the draft, but it would not surprise him at all to hear 20 years from now that one of the players drafted in the fourth to seventh rounds of the 2019 draft was headed for the Hall of Fame. It is not just a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup.

“It’s not really about what the players are doing right away, anyway, or who does this or that right away,” Shero said. “You’re taking the best players you can for your team.”


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