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Devils’ Jack Hughes, Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko adapting slowly to NHL

The NHL undeniably has become a younger, faster and more skilled league the past few seasons.

That doesn’t always mean young, fast and skilled players succeed. Look no further than the top two picks in June’s draft: New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes and New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko.

The two teenagers are experiencing growing pains as rookies. Their futures may be bright, but they have a lot of room for improvement.

Hughes, 18, carried a lot of hype before the Devils made him the No. 1 overall pick. He was the first American to be picked first since Auston Matthews in 2016 and the second since Patrick Kane was selected in 2007.

Unlike Matthews, who scored four goals in his debut, Hughes hasn’t provided an immediate impact. While Matthews’ possessed a lethal shot and scoring ability, Hughes was coveted for his skating, playmaking and smarts. He’s still learning how to use those traits in the NHL. He has 11 points in 24 games and is a minus-8.

Kakko, 18, has arguably fared worse. The No. 2 overall pick was thought to be more NHL-ready than Hughes because he was already playing professionally overseas in his native Finland. That’s hasn’t proved to be the case.

Kakko has 12 points in 25 games and is a team-worst minus-12 for the Rangers. His work in his own zone especially needs improving. Coach David Quinn said before Monday’s game against the Golden Knights that he liked Kakko’s game Nov. 30 against the Devils because the rookie did “a lot of things that he hadn’t been doing in the d zone.”

He’s still learning to do those things consistently. To get on the walls to help with breakouts and pay close attention to his defensive responsibilities.

Once he figures that out, and Hughes adjusts to the speed of the NHL, the sky is still the limit for both. It’s just going to take time.

“(They’re) going to be real good young players,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said Nov. 29 before his team left for a road trip to play the Rangers and Devils. “The key word is they’re still young. They’re still real talented players. The games you watch them on TV, they got a lot of skill and a lot of talent.”

Coyotes surging with little help from Kessel

One surprise this season: The Arizona Coyotes, who at 17-9-4 wrestled the Pacific Division lead from the Edmonton Oilers this past week.

An even bigger surprise: The Coyotes did so with marquee trade acquisition Phil Kessel hardly contributing. The right wing, who averaged 0.92 points per game in his previous four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has 17 points in 30 games for Arizona. He is a team-worst minus-14.

The rest of the Coyotes, led by goaltender Darcy Kuemper, have led the surge for a team looking for its first playoff berth in eight seasons. Kuemper has a 1.92 goals-against average and .937 save percentage and is an early favorite for the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet named Kuemper the team’s first, second and third star after their 4-2 win Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers. Kuemper stopped 61 of 64 shots in those two road games.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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