When the New York Rangers moved up during the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery, and landed in a position to draft Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko, the thought was that Kakko was going to immediately jump to the NHL and dominate right out of the gate. Unfortunately, Kakko’s first NHL season was one to be forgotten for both the Rangers and the 18-year-old winger, as Kakko spent most of last season looking overmatched, consistently a stride or two behind the play, hesitant and passive with the puck, and often getting outmuscled on and off the puck. It was not a stretch to say that Kakko was legitimately one of the worst players in the league last year by almost every significant statistical measure. But this year? Boy have things been different in a really good way.
Considering all the hype surrounding Kakko as the future of the Rangers and a potential cornerstone of the rebuild, it was hard to build up expectations for Kakko coming into the 2020-21 season especially given all of the weirdness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Kakko had shown flashes of improvement during the Rangers’ brief stay in the Toronto postseason bubble and there really wasn’t anywhere Kakko could go with his game but up and so, with some major question marks, Kakko began his second professional season.
After a dud of a season opener against the Islanders, Kakko has looked phenomenal for the New York Rangers. One of the few bright spots for the young winger during his rookie season was his play alongside fellow young forward Filip Chytil, and the two developed chemistry playing together in the Toronto bubble. After one game alongside Artemiy Panarin and Ryan Strome, head coach David Quinn put Kakko and Chytil together alongside winger Phil DiGiuseppe and the third line for the Rangers quickly became the best line for the Blueshirts in the early going of this season.
The trio combined for Kakko’s first goal of the season in the second game of the season and pushed play in the right direction. From that moment, the Chytil/Kakko combination has easily been the Rangers’ best as, for the most part, the puck has been staying in the opponent’s end and the Rangers were generating offense. Kakko looked stronger on the puck, anticipating the play, and using his size and hands to create space for himself and his linemates. Kakko’s improvement has been notable as one of the few bright spots for the Rangers over the past 17 games and while the 20-year-old winger is still sitting on those three points he picked up before Filip Chytil went down with an upper-body injury, under the hood, Kakko has been phenomenal.
To give you a sense just how good Kakko has been so far, he is first on the Rangers (minimum 100 minutes played) in expected goals for at a cool 55.77%, first in Corsi For at 52.67%, and second in shots for at 54.72%. Relative to his teammates, Kakko also leads in both shot attempts and expected goals, so to put it simply, he has been absolutely phenomenal for the Rangers, seizing a second line wing spot, playing alongside Artemiy Panarin and Ryan Strome with Filip Chytil still out with an injury.
Now, to address the elephant in the room. Yes, Kakko’s play has been much, much better than it was last year and has looked so good this season but he only has three points on the season. Just two goals and an assist, with his last point coming six games ago and his last goal coming 12 games ago against the Penguins. These box score metrics are important to an extent, but they aren’t the be all end all. Here, for example, Kakko makes a great play and Buchnevich gets hauled down.
There’s been a few moments this year when Kakko’s made a great play that a teammate couldn’t finish, which in a way is similar to what Vitali Kravtsov has encountered this year in the KHL.
Kakko is doing everything right, and has recorded at least one shot in all but one game this season. He is recording shots attempts near the net frequently as opposed to simply firing from range. That said, there are things Kakko needs to improve upon. His skating stride could use a bit more power behind it, and he needs to get rid of the puck quicker but as long as the process remains the same, the results will come.
His most recent goal in the shootout certainly can serve as a major morale boost, and it will be interesting to see the impact it has on him for the Rangers’ upcoming slate of games.