With the 2020-21 NHL and AHL season starting in early December or maybe even later than that, NHL teams have been loaning their young players and prospects to Europe to get some game action before the season begins. European leagues start in the Fall, giving loaned players an extra few months of hockey. Players such as Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Gaetan Haas of the Edmonton Oilers, and Filip Zadina and Mortiz Seider of the Detroit Red Wings have been loaned.
Only a few regular NHL players like Texier, Haas and Bemstrom have been loaned at the time of writing. They should be joined by at least two more. Last season’s first and second overall draft picks- Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils and Kaapo Kakko of the New York Rangers.
The Development of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko
NHL players can’t properly develop their game by not playing. They can make improvements, but they can’t put it all together without playing games. Players can grow their hockey intelligence by watching the film. They can also develop their skills while practicing. Their strength can also be improved by having more time to work out in the offseason. But they can’t put it all together without playing competitive hockey.
Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko certainly have some development they need to do. They both were on pace to score 28 points if they played 82 games. Hughes was the lowest-scoring rookie-forward who was drafted first overall since Patrik Stefan scored 25 points in 20 years ago. Kakko, who went second overall, was the lowest-scoring rookie forward from that draft position since Tyler Seguin scored 22 points in his rookie-season nine years ago.
That is why having Hughes and Kakko play in Europe for a few months is a good idea. It allows them to put the skills and hockey-knowledge they have been developing to the test as quickly as possible. They can determine what worked and what improvements are needed in October and focus on it throughout the season. If they find out in December, it gives them less time to improve.
European Hockey Will Help Their Development
The European leagues are not on the same level as the NHL, but that does not mean they are any easier. The players in these leagues are professionals, and some of them are former NHL players. The level of hockey will provide a good challenge to Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. But the opportunity to play in an easier league, with a larger ice-surface, is the perfect opportunity for them to play like the talented offensive players that they are supposed to be.
The combination of less-skilled opposition and more time with the puck because of the larger ice-surface will allow them to better develop. Hughes and Kakko get to work on handling the puck, make plays and shoot in real-time. They would have less opportunity to do that in a tighter-checking NHL.
Kakko has previous experience playing professional hockey in Europe. In his draft season in 2018-19, he played for TPS Turku in Finland’s top league, SM-Liiga. He scored 38 points in 45 games. If he gets loaned, it’s highly likely he will re-join TPS Turku. Fellow young Finnish player Eeli Tolvanen is going back to play for Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL.
After a disappointing rookie season, both Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko could use a boost of confidence heading into the 2020-21 season. Playing in Europe could do for them.
When Hughes and Kakko return from Europe, they will both be in game shape. That won’t be the case for most of the league, and that gives them an edge.
Outside of the teams that go deep into the playoffs, most NHL players wouldn’t have played meaningful games in three months. Longer for the seven teams who never got to play in the postseason. Hughes and Kakko would have an advantage over their peers because they would be in peak game shape. This should allow them to play better than they did last year and set them up for a strong second season.
Shawn Horcoff, a veteran of 1,000 NHL games and the Red Wings director of player development, sees this the same way with his players. In an Athletic article, he believes loaning prospects Filip Zadina and Mortiz Seider to Europe will give them a step on the rest of the players once NHL camps begin.
“Go ahead and do it because you’re going to be that much farther ahead than guys who are just kind of at their home, doing their own thing with local pros or their buddies,” Horcoff said.
Risk outweighs Reward
The risk with loaning Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko to Europe is that they could be injured. Jakub Voracek injured his knee, and Anton Volchenkov broke his foot in the KHL during the 2012 lockout. The development purpose of Hughes and Kakko being over there would be for nothing if they get hurt. However, the risk is worth it.
From a hockey point of view, losing Hughes and Kakko is not catastrophic. New Jersey has a few centres in Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha, who can make up for Hughes’ injury. The Rangers have depth on the wings with Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich and presumed number one draft pick Alexis Lafreniere to make-up for a potential Kakko injury. Neither Hughes nor Kakko finished in the top-ten scoring on their teams last year, making their absence replaceable.
But the long-term goal for these top-two picks is to have them as irreplaceable players. Sending them to Europe for a few months can be a significant step in getting them there. Having them not play won’t put them ahead. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean is the best path for Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko to sail into stardom and become two crucial players in the battle of the Hudson River.
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