VANCOUVER — While he spoke quietly and did the best he could to answer in English, Kaapo Kakko was prepared for the attention that came his way when all of the top NHL draft prospects gathered together on a boat sitting dockside in Vancouver Harbor.
He was surrounded by cameras and peppered with questions, similar to the attention Kakko faced last month at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia when the 18-year-old from Turku, Finland, solidified himself as arguably the most NHL-ready player in this year’s draft class.
“This is new thing for me. I think the last time in Slovakia it was almost same like this,” Kakko said Thursday.
A whirlwind year for Kakko will continue Friday night when his name is called, likely in the first few minutes of the draft. The question is whether Kakko will go No. 1 to New Jersey or fall to the New York Rangers with the second overall pick. American Jack Hughes is the other option, with most speculation leading to New Jersey taking Hughes first and leaving Kakko to play nearby the Rangers. If Kakko did go first overall, he’d become the first Finnish player to be selected No. 1.
But Kakko dropping beyond No. 2? Forget about it.
“These are the types of players that could help define a franchise. You have to make sure the timing is right, make sure they’re ready, etc. But I think every Ranger fan should have a smile on their face at picking No. 2,” Rangers President John Davidson said.
Davidson has the right to be excited because of what Kakko proved in the past year when he looked ready to play in the NHL immediately.
It actually started in April 2018 when Kakko helped Finland to a gold medal at the under-18 world championship. He led Finland to the title of the World Juniors in January, capping the title with a victory over United States in the same building where he will be drafted. He played a full season in the Finnish Elite League scoring 22 goals for TPS to tie for sixth overall and setting a league record for the most goals by a draft-eligible player.
And if he needed to prove himself any more, Kakko scored six goals in 10 games at the world championship in May and claimed another gold medal for his country. According to the IIHF, Kakko became the youngest player to have won gold at the under-18, world juniors and world championship.
For the talent of other top offensive prospects in the draft like Hughes, Kirby Dach, Alex Turcotte and others, no player has proven themselves against the best of international competition like Kakko.
“It’s my plan, my goal to play in the NHL next year,” Kakko said.
For most of the past season Kakko and Hughes have been linked as the elite of the draft, running seemingly parallel hockey lives halfway around the world from each other. Despite all the comparisons and breakdown of their skills, the pair had never met until exchanging a handshake in recent days. Their careers are likely to play out a short train ride away from each other.
“We’ll be linked together for a long time. … It should be pretty cool. It should be a lot of fun,” Hughes said.