NEWARK, N.J. — There wasn’t much debate at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft with how the first picks would go. A few joked that the June draft began with Chicago at No. 3; that’s how sure of a thing it was that Jack Hughes would go No. 1 to the New Jersey Devils and Kaapo Kakko would go second to the New York Rangers.
They were hockey’s future: Two of the more exciting players to enter the league in years and the anointed ones that would return two teams in the country’s biggest media market to heights they haven’t seen in a decade or more.
The Golden Knights will see both of them on back-to-back nights this week, starting with Kakko and the Rangers at 4 p.m. tonight. They’ll cross the river to visit Hughes at 4 p.m. Tuesday, getting an up-close look at two 18-year-olds emblematic of hockey’s youth movement.
“You see a lot more young players coming in and not just playing, but making an impact,” Vegas defenseman Jon Merrill said. “They’re ready to go. The league has been trending that way for the past three to five years and I think it’s just going to continue to get younger and younger.”
It’s a league where four out of the top five scorers are age 24 or younger. It’s a league where this year’s favorite for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie is Cale Maker, 21, who made his debut in the postseason with the Colorado Avalanche last year and was instantly a hit. The average age in the NHL is 27.3, which is around where the league has settled over the past few seasons.
The forefront of any rush of young talent starts with the draft picks. Hughes is the first player to ever jump directly from the US national team development program to the NHL, and Kakko was sixth in the Finnish elite league in goals last year where everyone above him was at least three years older than him.
“The league is getting a little younger, the younger guys are getting the shots but it’s because they’re coming in prepared, both physically and mentally,” Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch said.
There’s a learning curve to NHL, which is why it’s common for all but the elite amateur players to return to junior, go to college or play in the AHL after they are drafted before making their NHL debuts.
Hughes and Kakko are examples of that learning curve, as each has just 11 points in at least 23 games. Kakko has a minus-13 rating, worst among league rookies and Hughes is at minus-8, third-worst among freshmen.
The Golden Knights also have a few notable younger players.
Cody Glass, 20, was the sixth overall pick in 2017 and Nicolas Hague, 21, was the third pick of the second round. They’re now both regulars in Vegas, but only after Golden Knights officials allowed them to develop in juniors and the minors.
“Even from the start, from the first development camp that I went to in Vegas they were both there and they both just got drafted,” Tuch said of his rookie teammates. “To see where they have come since that first development camp, it’s been unbelievable. They’ve made a lot of good strides and they continue to make them every day.”
Glass and Hague considered future NHL players when they were drafted, but didn’t have the hype that Hughes and Kakko did.
“The key word is they’re still young but they’re still both talented players,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of talent, it’s fun to see those young players in the league.
“As long as they don’t play well against us.”