Talented Youngsters Renew Hudson River Rivalry

Two cards remained in the hands of deputy commissioner Bill Daly. One held the shield of the New Jersey Devils, the other held that of the New York Rangers. The draft lottery had come down to these two cross-town rivals, or perhaps rather cross-river rivals. Daly turned the card. The first overall pick of the 2019 NHL draft, a pick that would certainly equate to upcoming phenom Jack Hughes, belonged to the Devils.

The Rangers and Devils rivalry has long been one of the fiercest in the National Hockey League. Back in 1982, the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey and became the Devils, playing within the same Patrick Division the Rangers played in. However, before even playing in their first game of the season, the Devils were forced to pay out a huge compensation to the Rangers, among other teams, for the right to share the NY-NJ market.

But that’s all in the past.

The Devils now have Hughes. The hype around him was tremendous. The American center was the clear-cut choice for the first overall pick. He drew comparisons to some of the best playmakers in the world, including Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. The Devils’ front office hopes he can soon center a first line between dangerous wingers including former first-overall pick Taylor Hall.

With the number two overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko. The Finn, many analysts said, would likely have been a number one overall pick in any other year and has been compared to fellow countrymen such as Patrick Laine and Sebastian Aho. The Rangers’ front office hopes that Kakko will also develop into a first-line winger and help to speed up the club’s rebuild.

Both young studs are barely 18 years old, meaning that most of the people reading this article are actually older than either of the top-two overall picks. Their age, however, has not deterred either club from inserting the players into their respective lineups. Both Hughes and Kakko were slotted into their clubs’ opening night lineups this October. In 12 games, Hughes has put up three goals and four assists, while Kakko has put up three goals and two assists of his own.

While there are many similarities between these top-two picks, some crucial differences remain. Physically, Kakko is much more developed than Hughes. His game is more physical, and he prefers to play at the winger position. Standing five inches shorter than Kakko, Hughes plays a more tactical game from the center position and has a superb hockey IQ.

Unlike Hughes, who has been playing under the U.S. development team program for several years, Kakko comes from the top league in Finland. There, he has been playing against grown men since he was 16 years old. While the competition in Finland is good, it isn’t comparable to the fast-paced and extremely high skill level of the National Hockey League. Also, the ice surface itself is larger in Europe than in the NHL, forcing Kakko to further adapt his game to fit the North American-sized rinks. The psychological toll of moving to another continent to play a sport at the highest level also cannot be overlooked, especially considering that the 18-year-old is learning to speak English in the Big Apple, a far cry from the small town in Finland he was raised in.

The teams met for the first time this season back on Oct. 17. The Rangers, who play at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, drove the 14 miles under the Hudson River and through the Lincoln Tunnel to get to the home of the Devils, the Prudential Center. There, the Devils claimed a 5-2 victory, with Hughes registering one assist and Kakko registering zero points.

The long-anticipated meeting between the two rookies was somewhat anticlimactic, but the teams are slated to face each other again three more times, with the next meeting on Nov. 30. The cross-river rivalry has been rejuvenated yet again, and for these young men and the clubs they play for, the sky’s the limit.