When you think back on sports drafts of the past, they're usually highlighted and defined by the athletes at the top. This year's NBA Draft will undoubtedly be known as "The Zion Williamson Draft" for a long time, because Zion will undoubtedly be taken first and have the highest expectations from the class.
Meanwhile, the NHL Draft, which gets underway on Friday, will most likely be known as "The Jack Hughes Draft". In fact, it already has been for a few years, as Hughes has been the most hyped prospect in the class for some time.
The hype comes with good reason, as the American forward brings not only with an elite set of skills, but also a strong pedigree that reinforces faith in those skills.
Hughes' entire family is involved with the sport of hockey. His parents, Jim and Ellen, met through the sport and blazed their own successful journeys through the game. Ellen was a standout college player and won a silver medal with Team USA at the 1992 World Championships. She was named an All-Star at the tournament.
Jim captained Providence College's hockey team before going on to serve as an assistant coach for the Toronto Marlies (the Maple Leafs' AHL club) and, later, director of player development for the Leafs.
Jack's older brother, Quinn, a stud defenseman, played college hockey at the University of Michigan and was selected in the first round (eighth overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018. Jack's younger brother, 15-year-old Luke, has committed to playing at Michigan as well, and he's expected to be drafted in 2021. If he's taken in the first 32 picks (the new Seattle franchise will be participating in its first draft in 2021), the Hughes will be the first family to have three siblings selected in the first round.
In an incredible hockey family, Jack is believed to be the best of them all. And that's why the 2019 Draft is considered "The Jack Hughes Draft."
But there remains the ever so slight potential that this year's draft could be known as "The Kaapo Kakko Draft."
That's because while most agree that Hughes should be taken by the New Jersey Devils, who own the top overall pick, others argue that the young Finnish star is worthy of the distinction. The support for Kakko seemed to pick up after he put on a strong showcase the World Junior Championships this year, leading Finland to a gold medal over Hughes' American squad.
The Finnish winger may not have the pedigree that Hughes sports but his talent tends to speak for itself and he'll probably more readily equipped for the NHL right out of the starting gate. While Hughes is a wee bit undersized (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) down the middle, Kakko brings a more NHL-ready frame on the wing at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds.
Kakko has also spent the last year or so competing against adults in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. He found plenty of success doing so, with his 22 goals setting a new Finnish scoring record for first-year draft-eligible players. Florida Panthers star Aleksander Barkov held the previous mark with 21 goals in 2012-13, though he played eight more games than Kakko.
Hughes still needs to put on size and has spent the last two years with the United States National Development program, where he's played against fellow teenagers. With that being said, he's torn up the circuit and set records himself -- becoming the program's all-time leading scorer, surpassing established USNDT alumni and current NHL players Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews.
But while both of them have impressive resumes and records behind them already, they're pretty different players. Not only do they line up in different spots -- more value is typically placed on guys who play down the middle as opposed to the wings -- but the toolboxes that Hughes and Kakko bring to the ice are also quite different.
Hughes' game is largely about speed and skating. Not only does he have explosive acceleration and speed, but his edge work has received a ton of praise from scouts and analysts. And while plenty of young players can impress with their speed and skating, what makes Hughes stand out above the rest is his ability to operate at that high pace.
He's incredibly gifted in his capability to control himself and the puck at high rates of speed, as well as in his ability to see the ice and make smart split-second decisions with the puck, making him extremely difficult to contain. He's almost impossible to keep up with.
Meanwhile, Kakko's game is a bit more surgical. He doesn't have the top speed that Hughes does, but he doesn't always need it. Not only can he think the game well, Kakko also knows how to use his size to his advantage. He plays a strong game both on and off the puck and he doesn't need a whole lot space to beat you. Soft hands, creativity and ability to stay calm under pressure makes him a nightmare for defenses in pretty much any area of the ice.
Like Hughes, Kakko also has top-notch vision and passing. While he's an elite offensive talent on the wing, he's far from just a pure scorer. If he was, there wouldn't be any discussion about who should be the first pick.
At the end of the day, these are two elite prospects that have the potential to be game-breaking, franchise-changing players for both the Devils and the New York Rangers, who own the second pick in the draft. Hughes is expected to go first, but it's close enough that Kakko is still in the discussion. The decision on who to take first may come down to a preference for position.
But regardless of who gets the honor of first pick and defining the draft class, Hughes and Kakko will likely forever be linked -- especially because, barring any crazy circumstances, they'll be entering into the same division. They're expected to not only ignite their respective teams, but also reignite a Devils-Rangers rivalry that could rage on in New York and Jersey for the next decade.
There's been some talk about Hughes vs. Kakko being the next Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. The truth is, this isn't quite the same situation as that, nor are these the same players. A more accurate situational link can be found in the 2016 draft with Auston Matthews versus Patrik Laine -- an American center being favored over a Finnish winger -- but with the divisional appeal of Sid versus Ovi.
In any case, the idea that any of these comparisons are being mentioned in the same breath is a boon for hockey. There's no question that a rivalry is brewing, whether Hughes and Kakko like it or not. They're not only going head-to-head for honors on stage this week, but they'll be staring one another down on the ice several times a year for the foreseeable future.
It doesn't matter who gets picked where. It's shaping up to be a win for everyone.