Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko help renew Devils-Rangers rivalry

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Stan Fischler said he has never seen anything like the Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko spectacle: two elite prospects, who will be taken first and second in the 2019 NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, two storied geographic rivals.

"This is a first for me. And I've been watching the game since 1939," said Fischler, 87, a renowned hockey historian and a fixture on the New York puck scene since the 1950s.

This has never happened before in the NHL draft, tracking all the way back to 1963. There has never been a scenario in which neighboring blood rivals were both so bad at the same time as to earn the top two picks overall. Yes, there have been some rivals that have picked one and two, but not ones located in the same metropolitan area. And not ones that have the history of the Devils and Rangers, which spans from the gruesome battles in the Patrick Division to their playoff glories in the 1990s to Sean Avery waving his stick in Martin Brodeur's face while insulting his physique in the 2000s.

As both teams struggled for consistency in recent years, the rivalry cooled, even if the barbs from fans on social media remained as vicious as ever. Hughes and Kakko are expected to reignite it.

"This is a fantastic moment in time for the Trans-Hudson rivalry. Especially for New Jersey, since [general manager] Ray Shero picks first, and thereby sets the scenario all by himself," Fischler said.

In their decades-long feud, both the Devils and Rangers would either both be competitive -- see the Rangers' 1994 Eastern Conference finals win over New Jersey en route to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, or the Devils' 2012 Eastern Conference finals win against the Rangers -- or one would be up while the other was down. But not last season, when both teams were terrible. The Devils had 72 points, tumbling down the standings after a playoff berth in the previous season. The Rangers had 78 points, in the midst of a calculated rebuild.

At the NHL draft lottery in April, Shero nervously watched NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly flip the placards revealing NHL logos. When Chicago jumped into the top three, he thought "that's not good for us." He figured the Devils would be sixth. But Daly flipped over the Detroit Red Wings' logo in the No. 6 spot. Then fifth, but that was theLos Angeles Kings. Then fourth, but that was the Colorado Avalanche by way of the Ottawa Senators, who were the NHL's worst team. The Devils were in the final three picks, which their pre-draft lottery odds (11.5%) had predicted. But so were the Rangers, who had the sixth-best chance (7.5%).

"At that point, you're not even really thinking. It happens so quickly. You're not even thinking that the other guy left is in your division or anything. You're just thinking, 'S---, that would be great.' You're there, and you might as well try to win," said Shero, whose team won the lottery for the second time in three years.

"I know Jeff [Gorton, Rangers GM] pretty well. He's a great guy. There are a lot worse positions than to be up there. I can't really worry about what other team is still standing. Just that it's Jersey that won."

Devils fans, of course, will worry about what the other team does. As Fischler noted, whatever player they don't chose defaults to the Rangers. Shero is essentially selecting New York's next franchise player in the process of selecting his own.

"I was amused as much as anything. But sure, given the fact the Rangers are a rival, I'm annoyed they're likely going to get a good player as well," said Hasan Allahverdi, a 41-year-old Devils season-ticket holder who blogs at Battle of New York, a site that covers the rivalry involving the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.

"Obviously, the Hughes-Kakko dynamic adds a new element to the Devils-Rangers rivalry that's seldom been seen before, with draft peers both expected to be impact players for rebuilding teams. Their different backgrounds and attributes as hockey players will only amplify the comparisons with each other that much more. It'll alternately be fun and tense -- especially if both live up to projections and help lead their teams back to relevance, hopefully with some Crosby-Ovi type playoff matchups to boot."

He's not the only one thinking about the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry that rekindled the animosity between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals beginning in 2005 -- and, in the process, giving the NHL its marquee rivalry for the next 14 years. Shero was Crosby's general manager in Pittsburgh, and saw it firsthand.

"Hughes vs. Kakko is not Crosby vs. Ovechkin. But if Crosby had been taken by Pittsburgh and Ovechkin by Dallas or something like that, then that Washington vs. Pittsburgh rivalry, which is fantastic, wouldn't have been reignited," Shero said. "These things are really good for hockey. Hopefully we play more than the four or five times we do in the regular season and both teams make the playoffs. This is good. It'll make the rivalry stronger."

There is, of course, another component, which is the personal one.

"It'll be really competitive for a lot of years," Hughes told ESPN during the Stanley Cup Final. "Whether it's the Devils or the Rangers, we're going to be linked for a long time, with us going to places that are so close to each other."

It was projected for more than a year that the winner of the 2019 NHL draft lottery would select the U.S.-born center at No. 1, to the point where tanking efforts were labeled "Lose For Hughes." But Kakko's electrifying performance at the IIHF World Championships for champion Finland, with six goals and an assist in 10 games, closed the gap with Hughes in the eyes of many observers, especially since Hughes sputtered to three assists in seven games.

Suddenly, the top pick was being debated a bit more vigorously.

"I think that he had a great tournament. But I think that [scouts] have seen us play about 25 times this year," Hughes said. "They've done a lot of scouting, a lot of research for sure. Both teams will make a good pick and get a good player out of it."

As for the personal rivalry, could that be an added motivation for Hughes?

"I don't need any extra motivation. You're in the NHL. You're playing unbelievable players, every night. I just think it would be fun to be linked with that for a lot of years," he said.

Fischler says he thinks it'll be fun, too. What he likes about the rivalry is that it's a study in contrasts, much like the Crosby vs. Ovechkin dynamic was.

"You have a kid born in Orlando, Florida, of all places, vs. Turko, Finland. Then there's the smaller American against the bigger, more experienced Finn. Plus, the hype," Fischler said. "Few Americans ever have obtained the kind of build-up Jack is getting. Then there's the Hughes family angle against the Finn's lower-key approach to the game. Contrast that with Hughes' disappointing performance in the Worlds while his rival hit the heights with highlight performances.

"What we're seeing is a five-act play that's one of a kind."

The final act will be the Battle of the Hudson. The closest thing the Devils and Rangers have had to this level of competitive rivalry between elite players was Martin Brodeur vs. Henrik Lundqvist in goal. But Brodeur was 34 when Lundqvist was a rookie, with the former having already won three Stanley Cups, two Vezina Trophies and Olympic gold. Hughes and Kakko will both have their skates on the starting line, beginning their careers at the same time.

May the best franchise player win.

Said Shero: "It's great for the Devils. It's great for the Rangers. They're both good players."