Kaapo Kakko made significant strides during his sophomore season, and completed quite a turnaround relative to a rookie campaign that was one of the worst in recent memory. This growth and development, particularly in his defensive game, gave fans some confidence that Kakko’s early struggles might have just been a blip that was fueled by such a busy stretch of hockey from his pre draft and draft year. The goal was for him to remain a defensive menace, but also started showing elements of the player who turned heads internationally for Team Finland.
There was also hope that a new coach would allow Kakko to play with a little more confidence offensively, because a lot of the things that made him successful in Finland weren’t encouraged by David Quinn, someone who wanted his players to play simple hockey.
In short, the expectation was for Kakko to take additional steps as a high-end prospect, and start showing why the New York Rangers felt he could be a major part of a team on the rise with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Kakko’s 2021-22 season is a bit of a mixed bag, as he made some gains offensively while having some “slips” defensively. Since entering the league, Kakko has posted seasons that include a total GAR of -9.6, a GAR of 3.1, and this past season he came in a 1.9 via Evolving-Hockey.
How he achieved those numbers is important, and I think that some of the slips he made defensively being offset by offensive gains is an OK tradeoff for the time being.
Via Evolving-Hockey, here are his splits for GAR since entering the league.
2019-20: -4.9 OFF GAR | -6.4 DEF GAR
2020-21: -1.2 OFF GAR | 3.3 DEF GAR
2021-22: 1 OFF GAR | 1.1 DEF GAR
For the second year in a row, Kakko moved the needle in a positive direction offensively relative to the prior year, and after making such a large jump from 19-20 to 20-21 defensively, there was a bit of a slip this past year.
He primarily played on two lines, and that includes familiar linemates in Artemiy Panarin, and Ryan Strome, as well as an extend spin in the place of the departed Pavel Buchnevich with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
This stint was inexplicably cut short, and I’d be interested to see what the results would be over a full season in which he stays healthy and is allowed to remain in place. It would also be nice to have him shoot the puck more, something that’s been a bit of a bugaboo, but his play in the playoffs give me some hope that he’s starting to figure that out.
In each situation Kakko had a specific role, and offense wasn’t the primary one. He is strong along the boards, and great at cycling, but never aimed to be the primary offensive option. He had some moments, and this is one that specifically stands out to me.
Kaapo Kakko goal x Father Stretch My Hands pic.twitter.com/yt7O3vI4Aq— Fitz (@FitzGSN_) November 15, 2021
Kreider, Zibanejad, and Panarin all had very impressive offensive seasons, and there’s only so much offense to go around. This doesn’t mean Kakko can’t get more assertive, but in the scheme of the Rangers’ offense, it is understandable why things have gone the way they have.
Kakko also doesn’t get a ton of power play time, so with all of that in consideration I think it’s impressive that his offensive GAR number still went up. Obviously you want to see the actual numbers increase, but some players take longer than others. Look no further than how former third-round pick Rangers like Buchnevich and Anthony Duclair have progressed as they’ve gotten older.
The year over year change visually in his report card certainly isn’t great, but from a percentile perspective Kakko undoubtedly takes a bit of a hit by only playing in 43 games in what was his first 82-game season as a player. His rookie year was shortened by COVID, and the year after was reduced to 56 games.
In terms of fancy stats, Kakko finished 2nd among roster regulars with an expected goals for percentage of 51.96, 1st in Corsi for percentage (50.66), and 1st in goals for percentage (61). If you look at just the playoffs, Kakko was second on the team with a 50.22 xGF%, second with a 51.03 CF%, and second with a 59.03 GF%. He was in the middle of some big moments and goals, and helped shift momentum when the team needed it.
Are we going to talk about Kaapo Kakko’s pass?— Sam Stern (@SammmyStern) June 2, 2022
Are we going to talk about The Kid Line making Tampa’s top pair look like Jeff Woywitka and Stu Bickle? pic.twitter.com/Nf2PcZINsc
Despite this, there was some reason Gerard Gallant felt he shouldn’t be in the lineup for the team’s final playoff game, and that decision certainly caused some speculation regarding his future. We will probably never know the full story, but we know that Kakko is going to reflect on whatever that reason is and be better going forward to try and prove people wrong.
Grade: B- | Banter Consensus: B+
Through three years of play, Kakko has 26 goals, 32 assists, and 58 points in 157 games, and it is understandable why some may look at this and be disappointed in Kakko, and worry about whether or not he’ll live up to being a No. 2 pick. What I am encouraged by is how Kakko has been able to grow and improve. The steps taken in year two were very impressive, and this past season should be looked at as a success.
Kakko isn’t happy about how the season ended. He’s probably embarrassed by it, but when he met with the media at the end of the year he was accountable and said he’ll be using the moment as a source of motivation.
Kaapo Kakko is using his Game 6 benching as motivation for next year:— Rangers Videos (@SNYRangers) June 13, 2022
"I'm going to show, 'I'm better than that. You should put me in the lineup. I'm a good player.'" pic.twitter.com/WOCXjhwvuG
Kakko is one of the few Rangers who are naturally good possession players, and have the ability to drive things and generate chances. He’s also a smart player defensively, and is great at lulling the opposition into a false sense of security before pouncing.
He has areas where he can improve, but I think Kakko is someone that is still working on becoming more confident and assertive. That is something that can make all the difference in the tier of player he ends up being. It is clear that something happened which resulted in him becoming a more conservative player. Maybe it was Quinn, maybe it was him doubting himself at the NHL level, or something different all together.
A lot of the tools for him to be a successful player are in place. The opportunity in terms of ice time should be there too. Putting him on a line and letting him remain there, through good and bad, is something that needs to happen this year. Kakko has another challenge ahead of him, and if he enters the regular season like the player he was for most of the playoffs, we are more than likely having a much different conversation about him a year from now.