Kaapo Kakko — an 18-year-old who played an absurd amount of hockey in his pre-draft and draft year before joining the New York Rangers, had to adjust to living in a new country away from his family, and adjust to the rigors of an NHL schedule while being a type-1 diabetic with celiac disease — had one of the worst regular season performances in recent history in his rookie season.
We ran our GAR model last night and Kaapo Kakko ended up as the worst player in the NHL so far this season... so there’s that.— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) November 1, 2019
The preamble here was a mouthful, but I feel it is worth reminding everyone of the situation Kakko was in, how he struggled, and with hindsight we now see with rest and acclimation how things changed. His 2019-20 season saw him finish with a Goals Above Replacement value of -9.6. while being worth -1.7 Wins Above Replacement according to Evolving-Hockey. It is very likely that the worst season of Kakko’s career will be his first, and if that ends up being the case that means there’s nowhere to go but up, and up did Kakko go in Year 2 on Broadway.
An interesting turnaround story from last year to this year (so far) based on the charts is Kaapo Kakko pic.twitter.com/dpFmQql3AE— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) March 24, 2021
We always said Kaapo Kakko was a good hockey player— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) April 28, 2021
Kakko ended the season with 9 goals and 8 assists for 17 points in 48 games, and a points per game average of 0.35 for the second year in a row. He was a bit more confident shooting the puck, although he still can improve in that area, and finished with a shooting percentage of 11.1 which was up from 9.2 the year prior.
Kakko was one of the league’s most improved players; the chart below shows that year-to-year growth.
The growth of Kakko as a player, is something that should be truly celebrated — especially because he added a defensive element to his game that wasn’t initially expected of him. Offense will come with Kakko as he becomes more confident and deliberate with shooting the puck, but I don’t think enough has been made of how amazing he was defensively this season.
In terms of fancy stats, Kakko finished 9th among regulars with a Goals For Percentage of 54.43 at 5v5, 1st in Corsi For Percentage (58.63), and 1st in Expected Goals For Percentage (55.92). Kakko deserved better offensive results than he ended up with, but that’s something to keep an eye on for next season. Strong underlying numbers like Kakko had bode well for sustainable success, so if he continues to play at this level or higher, the results should come.
His work ethic and defensive acumen is something that will certainly be appreciated by new head coach Gerard Gallant, and that could certainly help him take his next step as an NHL player.
Grade: B | Banter Consensus: B
Kakko had as good a sophomore season as you’d like to see considering how things went in Year 1. Defensively, he established himself as a force and had very strong underlying numbers. The winger looked more confident as a player, and played at a more consistent level.
I personally docked him a bit because of his hesitancy when it came to shooting, and making an extra pass too often this year when he had clear scoring opportunities. I feel that is the biggest challenge he faces, and I think it is something that will come with experience as he becomes more selfish instead of deferring to the established talent on the team.
Not using him on the main power play unit was an extreme miss by former head coach David Quinn, because it was apparent that something was missing all year long. A special teams environment with additional time and extra space would have been a good way to bring Kakko along as an offensive player and shooter, which could have spilled over to 5v5 play.
No matter how you look at it though, 2020-21 was a huge year for Kakko, and he rebounded in an impressive way. I am extremely bullish on Kakko as he heads into his third season as an NHL player, and I think he is the player that will most benefit from a new head coach.