After an exciting season that culminated in an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final, the general feeling around the New York Rangers is that the 2021-22 season was the beginning of a period of sustained success.
A key part of that success will be the growth and development of the team’s talented young players, and the organization’s willingness to trust them in bigger roles moving forward.
That is why head coach Gerard Gallant’s decision to scratch Kaapo Kakko — who the Rangers selected second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft — in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning is so worrisome. The short-term impact on the Rangers’ chances of winning that game makes the decision a head-scratcher. The potential long-term ramifications, though, are even more concerning.
The decision to scratch Kakko is a troubling sign of things to come for a team that, as mentioned, needs to rely on its young talent to continue to grow — and as such, needs to show more belief in those players — if it wants to get back to this point in the postseason and change the outcome in the coming years. We’ve already seen the Rangers mismanage relationships with two top-10 European draft picks (Vitali Kravtsov and Lias Andersson) in the past. Gallant’s shortsighted decision to scratch Kakko in an elimination game might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and maybe (hopefully) it ends up being so. But at this point, it’s not unreasonable to think this could become a sticking point in what could turn into a tenuous relationship between the organization and its lottery draft pick from 2019. The fact that Gallant did not even have a discussion with Kakko about the decision only adds to the potential of this becoming a fractured relationship. Again, that doesn’t mean it will definitely become that, but completely forgoing communication in this manner certainly plants a seed for souring relations.
Kakko confirmed that there was no conversation and that he was, understandably, unhappy about the scratch. When asked about his status as a restricted free agent, and the potential impact of this situation on this summer’s contract negotiations, Kakko took the high road in his breakup day press interview, saying it will motivate him for next season and not have an impact on contract talks, and that he likes to play for the Rangers. That’s great and all, but I would not personally put much stock in that comment as an indicator of what might actually happen. What else is he going to say in that setting? Any mention of being dissatisfied and possibly wanting to seek out other opportunities would likely happen internally behind closed doors — not in a breakup day media conference.
#NYR Kaapo Kakko: "It's never fun when you're not making the lineup. Wasn't so happy about that."— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) June 13, 2022
Adds that it was the first time that happened to him.
#NYR Kaapo Kakko says getting scratched in Game 6 won't impact what he wants to do for his next contract: "I like to play here."— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) June 13, 2022
Since Kakko is a restricted free agent, the Rangers better quickly figure out the best way to ensure that he’s part of the future here, and fully give him the opportunities and confidence he needs to succeed. That is, of course, if they even see Kakko as part of their long-term plans; their treatment of him to this point suggests that maybe they’d be okay with trading him in what they view as the right deal. If so, it’s easy to envision that type of move coming back to bite them down the road.
In any event, the nightmare scenario is Kakko signing an offer sheet from another team, which, if one comes his way, he might feel compelled to do based on the Rangers’ continued lack of confidence in him (and other teams might feel compelled to submit one if they’re paying attention to this situation). While Kakko has not yet produced the types of point totals everyone hoped for when he was taken second overall a few years ago, and thus might not seem like a strong offer-sheet candidate on the surface, he is still only 21 years old and has plenty of upside. That could make him an attractive target to teams with cap flexibility who would be betting on his future growth, especially if they sense that there is any strain in his relationship with the Rangers.
(2/6) "I had people throwing offer sheets at me saying this team liked him and that team liked him. I think his future immediately leaps to near the top of the list. Are the #NYR still committed to him and is he still committed to them? I think that's going to be a big question."— Phil Kocher (@PhilKocher) June 13, 2022
The cap-constrained Rangers cannot allow an offer-sheet scenario to come to fruition, and thus need to act quickly, ahead of the start of free agency on July 13, to ensure it doesn’t. Until such an adequate resolution takes place, this situation has added some unnecessary uneasiness to the immediate aftermath of a successful season.