VANCOUVER, British Columbia – American center Jack Hughes and Finland’s Kaapo Kakko being selected with the first two picks in the NHL draft was hardly a surprise.
The New Jersey Devils opened the draft Friday by making Hughes the eighth American chosen with the No. 1 pick. And the New York Rangers, as expected, selected Kakko, the top-ranked European prospect.
The Blackhawks, who jumped from 12th in the order to third after the draft lottery, went with size in selecting 6-foot-4 center Kirby Dach out of Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League.
Dach, 18, finished third on the Blades with 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) in 62 regular-season games during the 2018-19 season. His 48 assists ranked second, and his 25 goals ranked third among Saskatoon skaters. Dach added five goals and three assists while helping Saskatoon to the WHL conference semifinals.
It’s the unpredictability that followed that provided the intrigue.
Steve Yzerman began placing his stamp on the Red Wings upon his return to Detroit as general manager. He selected German defenseman Moritz Seider with the sixth pick ahead of a number of players who were ranked much higher by NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau.
Two Swedish defensemen were selected among the top 11 players with Philip Broberg chosen by Edmonton, and the Arizona Coyotes giving up a second-round pick to Philadelphia in trading up three spots to select Victor Soderstrom at 11.
And the Florida Panthers, at 13, bucked a recent trend by making American Spencer Knight just the third goalie chosen in the first round over the past seven years.
Hughes was the top-ranked North American skater and became the first American to go No. 1 since 2016, when Toronto chose Auston Matthews.
From Orlando, Florida, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound playmaking center was the top-ranked North American prospect. He had 74 goals and 154 assists to set the USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s two-year record with 228 points in 110 games.
“Obviously, Kaapo Kakko had a great year ... but I was pretty confident and pretty calm, cool collected through the whole process,” said Hughes, who had a lengthy dinner with Devils GM Ray Shero during the pre-draft combine in Buffalo this month. “I’ve said this like eight times already, but I’m pumped to be a Devil, and I’m so excited.”
Hughes comes from a hockey family. His father, Jim Hughes coached at the professional level, and also served also served as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ director of player development. Jack Hughes credits the time he spent playing minor hockey in Toronto as helping spur his development.
A year ago, Hughes attended the NHL draft to watch his older brother, defenseman Quinn Hughes, be selected with the seventh pick by the Vancouver Canucks.
Kakko is a 6-foot-2 winger, who helped Finland complete an international gold-medal sweep at the world championships, world juniors and Under-18 tournament. He had 22 goals the Finnish Elite League, the most by a draft-eligible player.
Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic, who grew up in suburban Vancouver, received a big cheer from the crowd before announcing the fourth pick. He then drew an even louder cheer after selecting defenseman Bowen Byram, who played for Vancouver in the Western Hockey League.
Yzerman’s decision to select Seider surprised many, including the player himself.
“I’m still shocked,” said Seider, who was the scouting bureau’s sixth-ranked European. “We had a couple if good meetings with Steve Yzerman, and Yzerman wanted to know every single thing about me. But we saw a couple of rankings and I wasn’t that high on any of them. It’s an unreal moment.”
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, Seider had two goals and six points in 29 games playing for Mannheim of Germany’s top league, and scored twice in two games at the world championships.
Seider became the seventh German-born player to be selected in the first round. And only two were selected higher, including Leon Draisaitl, who was selected third by Edmonton in 2014.
This marked the second time the Devils have selected first. In 2017, New Jersey chose Switzerland’s Nico Hischier, who helped the Devils reach the playoffs in his rookie season. Injuries contributed to New Jersey taking a step back last season in which they finished 29th in the overall standings.
Hughes’ selection was expected to open what should be a banner first-round for USA Hockey’s development team and American-born players overall.
Three NTDP players went in the top 10 with Alex Turcotte selected with the fifth pick by Los Angeles and Trevor Zegras going ninth to Anaheim.
Then began a run of NTDP players with picks 12 through 15. Minnesota selected forward Matthew Boldy, followed by the Panthers’ taking Knight. Philadelphia chose defenseman Cameron York at 14, and Montreal drafted Cole Caufield, who at 5-foot-7 scored an NTPD-record 72 goals last season.
Eight Americans were taken among the top 20.
The 2016 draft set the record with 12 Americans selected in the first round.
With the seventh pick, Buffalo selected center Dylan Cozens, who became just the third player born in Canada’s Yukon Territory ever drafted — and the first in the first round. Cozens showed such ability he was playing against adults as a 13-year-old in Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse.
“It always felt like a far reach to me, not really achievable,” Cozens said of being drafted. But I believed it, I believed in myself that I could make this happen one day and now that it’s here it’s a crazy feeling.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman opened the draft and was greeted by a traditional round of loud boos from the sold-out arena. Bettman then left the podium and waited for former Canucks stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin to join him on stage, where they were greeted to loud cheers.
The Sedin twins were selected second and third overall in the 1999 draft. Bettman then announced both players’ jerseys — Daniel wore No. 22 and Henrik, 33 — will be retired this season.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.
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