Though the Rangers entered September training camp with aspirations of stringing together some wins and making the playoffs, there was no confusing the fact that the priority for the 2019-2020 season was to develop and evaluate.
There are many players to whom this applies. In fact, it’s most of the young, inexperienced roster. But there is nothing more important for the long-term fate of this team than the progression of Kaapo Kakko.
It hasn’t quite worked out this season. The baseline numbers aren’t great. Kakko has just seven goals and ten assists in 49 games despite being deployed in all sorts of advantageous offensive opportunities. The underlying numbers are far uglier. Per Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric, which serves to estimate a player’s overall impact when he’s on the ice, Kakko ranks dead-last among all NHL forwards this season. The model estimates that Kakko has been worth roughly nine fewer goals than a replacement-level player would (think of the average guy on waivers on a given day).
In effect, the Rangers are getting swamped when Kakko is on the ice. At even strength, the Rangers have only been expected to score 18.73 goals while giving up 33.01. In actuality, they’ve been outscored 30-12. CSA Hockey ranks Kakko as the fifth-worst forward in the NHL by expected goals plus/minus.
Kakko’s issues have been largely ignored compared to the constant, heavy scrutiny most other players face after even a bad couple of weeks. And when confronted with his struggles, there’s usually a fervent collective effort to pardon Kakko with a myriad of justifications. He’s 18 years old. He’s adjusting to a new kind of hockey. Moving to North America (and especially New York) is tough. These are not excuses; they’re fair assessments and are more than sufficient in swatting away any of the usual Chicken Littles deeming him a bust.
But while those rationalizations are not invalid, they do not sufficiently account for his struggles. Kakko is not the first European to make his North American debut as an 18-year-old. In fact, he is the thirteenth skater to do so since the 2007-2008 season, which is as far back as Evolving Hockey has Goals Above Replacement data. Kakko does not stack up well.
It’s not just that Kakko is last on this list, but that there’s a massive gulf separating him from the rest of the pack. And while it’s not a flawless correlation — Lindholm has turned into a much better player than Larsson, for instance — the players towards the top of the list have typically developed better than the players towards the bottom.
We could further parse the differences between Kakko and the others to excuse Kakko, arguing that it’s even harder to adjust to living in New York, or bemoan how many games he’s played at different levels in the last year and the effect it has had on its body. That distinction is minimal in nature at best and selective at worst. One could find benefits and difficulties in each situation. Pressure on Kakko was mitigated in a way it wasn’t for Laine, with major offseason additions of Panarin and Trouba. Barkov didn’t have nearly the level of resources on a small-market team in Florida that Kakko does with the Rangers. Hedman and Larsson play a much more difficult position and had way more responsibilities than Kakko does as a fairly sheltered winger.
It’s a major stretch, and that’s being accommodating, to suggest that any nuanced difference in obstacles would be so great that they alone would fully account for Kakko being significantly outperformed by Alexander Burmistrov, or Valeri Nichushkin, or Rasmus Ristolainen.
What’s more, none of these concerns about a transition to the NHL and North America were particularly cared for to this extent in the autumn. Yes, everyone understood that Kakko would not be an overnight superstar and that there could be some bumps along the road, but nobody was questioning his NHL readiness.
Quite the opposite in fact. The New York Post wrote in June that “adjusting to the NHL should be seamless (for Kakko).” Lohud wrote that “many believe Kakko can make a more immediate impact (than Jack Hughes) and stated unequivocally that he was “NHL ready.” And to prove that I’m not just trying to pick on people, here is what I personally wrote back in June.
That’s not to say that these hurdles are non-existent. Of course the change in lifestyle, the change in tactics, the change in language, and so on have had their effects on Kakko’s game. But if those variables have so dramatically tanked his ability to make an impact that it has reduced him to arguably the least effective player in the NHL this season, why are we only capable of seeing that in hindsight? How come absolutely nobody was able to predict that four-to-eight months ago? Why was there zero question of whether he’d make the team out of camp, and why has there never been even a superfluous conversation about sending him to the AHL? Why did everyone, from the fans, to the coaches, to the scouts, to the data analysts, acknowledge those obstacles and deem him quite obviously ready to be a contributing NHLer?
Even if one wants to argue that, yes, everyone missed it. That these issues of adjusting to the league and country have sabotaged Kakko to the point that he has been worse than numerous other players his age who are/were significantly less talented. So what? Who is to say that the troubles adjusting are temporary? What if those are issues that hamper his ability to reach his potential long-term?
It seems more likely that these serve as a way to reverse engineer a narrative that explains away his poor season in the most convenient and least demoralizing manner possible. It’s a way to deflect from acknowledging every fan’s worst anxiety, which is the possibility of a franchise player not reaching expectations. If it can happen to Alexandre Daigle, Ryan Leaf, Darko Milicic, and Delmon Young, then it could happen to Kaapo Kakko.
It is instead more intellectually honest to acknowledge Kakko’s season for what it is and trust that he’s going to get to where he needs to be anyway. He’s not as ready as we thought he was, and I don’t just mean off the ice. Space on the ice is harder to find. Opposing teams pressure the puck quicker. His physical advantages are mitigated in a way they weren’t in Finland or at the junior level. He’s struggled to learn the team’s tactics.
True confidence in Kakko’s future requires recognizing his disappointing season rather than trying to bury it under a pile of unconvincing rationalizations shaped by denial.
And yet, even in Kakko’s worst games this season you can always find a hint of what’s probably to come. Sometimes it’s one play, or one shift, or one period. The ability to hold the puck in the offensive zone for long periods of time. The passes through the seams of bodies to a teammate’s stick in a scoring position. The ability to create shots, not only to score but to create rebound chances. His power play impacts this season have been positive. He’s drawing a lot of penalties while taking few himself. It’s not as if his perceived talent was a mirage. It’s there, and it’s evident. He and the Rangers maybe just have a lot more work to do than they expected in order to get it from him consistently.
Times for success in sports are varied. Sometimes you get instant superstars like LeBron James and Sidney Crosby. Sometimes players are obvious busts the second they make their debuts. And there’s everything else in-between. Tyler Myers and Nail Yakupov had great rookie seasons and regressed from there. Daniel Briere couldn’t nail down a spot in the NHL until his mid-20s.
Let’s leave no room for misinterpreting the intended implications of this article: this author thinks Kaapo Kakko is going to become a hell of a hockey player for years to come. I imagine the overwhelming majority of hockey followers feel the same way. He’s so incredibly talented and dedicated to the cause. His resume prior to this season is impeccable. It would be foolish to bet against him.
But this season has been a mighty struggle for Kakko and it should offer at least a little morsel of anxiety about his future. It is okay to acknowledge this without reflexively activating the Excuse Machine. It’s a reasonable concern, and in no way is it a betrayal of justified confidence that Kakko will nevertheless find his way and become the high-end player as expected.