Big Question at the Hockey World Championship: Who’s No. 1 (in the Draft)?


KOSICE, Slovakia — The debate over whether Jack Hughes of the United States or Kaapo Kakko of Finland should be the No. 1 pick in the N.H.L. draft next month has detoured to Slovakia, where the teenage forwards are representing their native countries at the world championship.

It’s not the first time they have gone head-to-head. They have been battling for years at international tournaments, Kakko taking home the gold and Hughes the silver from the under-18 world championship last year and from the world junior championship this year. And with the Devils and the Rangers currently holding the top two selections in the draft, Kakko and Hughes could be seeing a lot of each other in years to come.

Hughes, who is rated as the top North American prospect by the N.H.L. Central Scouting Services, played for the United States National Team Development Program this season and delivered a record-breaking performance at the under-18 world championship in April. He had nine goals and 11 assists as he helped the Americans to the bronze medal, behind Sweden, the champion and the host, and Russia. He had a total of 32 career points at the event, surpassing Alex Ovechkin’s record of 31, set in 2003.

Throughout the season, Hughes, who turned 18 last week, averaged 2.24 points per game, and he finished his two-year career in the development program with 228 points in 110 games. That obliterated the previous scoring record of 190, set by Clayton Keller in 2016.

Hughes, who at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds is four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Kakko, has gotten limited minutes on an American team filled with N.H.L. All Stars. He has only one assist.

But the coach for the United States, Jeff Blashill, disputed the notion that Hughes could hurt his draft status by participating in the world championship. Blashill said the three weeks Hughes would spend learning from players like Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Detroit’s Dylan Larkin and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel offered “a tremendous opportunity for him to grow.”

“So much gets made about who gets picked No. 1, and I’m sure it feels great on draft day, but people don’t remember who the No. 1 pick was as much as they remember the greatest players of all time,” Blashill said, “and the only way to be a great player is to get better every day.”

Hughes said that he thought he had solidified his draft status at the under-18 tournament and that he had not gone to Slovakia to prove anything. He went with the mind-set that his teammates could help prepare him for the next step in his career.

“This team might be the best team U.S.A. has had at this event in a really long time, and being a part of that isn’t something I was going to pass up,” he said.

Besides, having won a silver and a bronze, Hughes said, “I want to get that gold medal for USA Hockey.” (The United States has not won this tournament since 1933.)

Kakko said that he had tried not to think about the draft because it was out of his control, but that he felt he had done enough to deserve the honor of going first over all.

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