VANCOUVER — Jack Hughes was selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the NHL draft on Friday night.
The flashy centre put up a record 154 assists and 228 points over two seasons with the under-18 U.S. National Team Development Program.
The Devils had the third-best odds of winning the draft lottery back in April, but jumped two spots for the right to draft Hughes.
“Obviously going first overall was a dream of mine,” Hughes said. “But the Devils are a great organization, a great team, lots of good players, a pretty rich history, too. It’s a spot that really wanted me, I knew that from the get go.
“I’m just excited to play with the organization now.”
The 18-year-old joins a team that already boasts fellow former No. 1 picks Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier up front. New Jersey made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in 2017-18, but is coming off a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division at 31-41-10.
Hughes said he didn’t really feel nervous until just before his name was called.
“I’m a pretty calm kid. The only time I really got nervous was when Gary (Bettman) was talking up there for two minutes or so. That’s the only time I got nervous,” he said. “It’s been a hectic day.”
“With the first pick overall, the New Jersey Devils are proud to select from the US program, Jack Hughes.” pic.twitter.com/z4OAVorFOw
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) June 22, 2019
The New York Rangers then stepped up to the podium to snag Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko with the second selection. Kakko, also 18, scored 22 goals — a record for a draft-eligible prospect — and added 16 assists in his country’s top division in 2018-19.
“It was my dream to be No. 1, but the second (pick) is also good,” said Kakko. “I’m happy.”
Hughes was born in Orlando, Fla., but spent his formative years in the Toronto area when his father, Jim, worked for the Maple Leafs.
The younger Hughes, who registered 112 points in 50 games with the USNTDP in 2018-19, is the eighth American-born player to go No. 1 and the first since Toronto took Auston Matthews in 2016.
He’s also just the second USNTDP player to be drafted No. 1 directly out of the program after the St. Louis Blues took defenceman Erik Johnson first overall in 2006.
The five-foot-10, 170-pound playmaker is the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes, who was selected seventh last June in Dallas.
The 228 points Hughes scored over his two seasons with the USNTDP smashed Clayton Keller’s previous mark of 189 (71 goals, 118 assists).
Kakko, meanwhile, heads to the Big Apple with quite a resume. He’s already won three gold medals internationally, including the 2019 world junior hockey championship in Vancouver and the recent men’s worlds in Slovakia.
The six-foot-two, 194-pound Turku native’s 22 goals this past season was one better than the 21 that Aleksander Barkov scored in 2012-13 before he was picked second overall by the Florida Panthers.
Kakko, who is said to model his game after Matthews, buried the winning goal for Finland at the world juniors before scoring six times to lead his country at the men’s worlds last month.
His selection at No. 2 marks the fourth time in the last four years a Finn has gone in the top three, following on the heels of Patrik Laine (second to Winnipeg in 2016), Miro Heiskanen (third to Dallas in 2017) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (third to Montreal in 2018).
Kirby Dach was the first Canadian off the draft board at Rogers Arena, with Chicago taking the centre at No. 3. The 18 year old from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., had 25 goals and 48 assists with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades last season.
“I’m at a loss for words for what just happened,” said Dach. “But it’s awesome to be picked by the Blackhawks.”
Next up was Colorado, which picked Bowen Byram fourth. The six-foot, 193-pound defenceman had 26 goals, 45 assists and a plus-33 rating for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants last season.
The selection originally belonged to Ottawa, but was acquired by the Avalanche as part of the blockbuster Matt Duchene trade with the Senators back in November 2017.
“Everyone knew what was happening the first two picks. After that nobody knew what was going on, but then when (Colorado) got up there I had a really good feeling about them from the start,” said Byram.
“When they called my name it was pretty cool.”
Colorado also had the best odds to win the 2017 draft lottery, but again fell to fourth when New Jersey jumped to the front of the line and drafted Hischier. The Avalanche did get defenceman Cale Makar that year, who made his debut in this spring’s playoffs and figures to be a difference-maker moving forward.
The Edmonton Oilers were the first Canadian team to make their pick, and selected defenceman Philip Broberg at No. 8.
Broberg played last season with AIK in Sweden, scoring twice and adding seven assists. The 17-year-old was named the best defenceman at the U18 world championship.
The Vancouver Canucks picked Russian forward Vasily Podkolzin 10th overall.
The 17-year-old from Moscow played part of last season for St. Petersburg of the KHL and was the No. 2 European skater on the NHL Central Scouting prospect list behind Kakko.
Podkolzin, six-foot-one 196 pounds, captained Russia at the under-18 world championships.
The Montreal Canadiens took American Cole Caufield 15th overall.
The five-foot-seven right-winger from Wisconsin had 72 goals and 100 points in 64 games with the U.S. under-18 team last season.
The Ottawa Senators selected defenceman Lassi Thomson of Finland with the 19th pick.
The six-foot 186-pound Thomson played his first season in North America in 2018-19 with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, producing produced 17 goals and 41 points in 63 games.
READ MORE: VIFD’s 2019 NHL mock draft
The Winnipeg Jets made it two consecutive Finnish defenceman to go in the draft, taking Ville Heinola at No. 20.
The 18-year-old played 34 games with Lukko Rauma in Finland last season, scoring two goals and adding 12 assists. He added a goal and an assist over seven playoff games.
The Calgary Flames selected forward Jakob Pelletier with the 26th overall pick, taking the five-foot-nine 165-pound winger from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats.
The 18-year-old winger from Quebec City produced 39 goals and 89 points in 65 games with the Wildcats in 2018-19.
Friday marked a record fourth straight year a Canadian didn’t go No. 1 in the draft, which continues with rounds two through seven on Saturday.
THE CANADIAN PRESS