When the New York Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, the young winger immediately faced enormous expectations. Despite inconsistent play and some extended scoring droughts since his NHL debut, the Blueshirts continued to give him opportunities and he is now rewarding them with impressive two-way play.
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Kakko’s Journey With the Rangers
During Kakko’s rookie 2019-20 season he scored a few highlight-reel goals but struggled defensively and scored just two goals in a 48-game stretch. He finished the season with 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games.
In the 2020-21 season, he improved dramatically defensively and looked much more comfortable playing against older players in the NHL. He started holding onto the puck longer and generating more scoring chances but far too often he failed to capitalize on those opportunities. He played just 48 games due to injuries and the shortened season, finishing with nine goals and eight assists.
Last season Kakko missed a lot of time with a few different injuries and struggled to capitalize on his scoring chances, but once again played very well defensively when healthy. He had seven goals and 11 assists in 43 games. Additionally, his “Kid Line” along with fellow young forwards Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, provided a spark for the Rangers all postseason, with Chytil breaking out for seven goals in 20 games.
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Kakko continued his strong defensive play in the postseason but he finished with just two goals and three assists in 19 games. He also missed a wide-open net in Game 1 of the Rangers’ second-round matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes with his team ahead 1-0 in the third period. They ended up losing 2-1 in overtime.
A few weeks later, head coach Gerard Gallant surprisingly decided to scratch the young forward for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers ended up losing the game and getting eliminated.
Kakko’s Play This Season
Despite the disappointing end to last season, Kakko came out motivated and has played well this season. Though he did not score much early on, he played well at even strength. He is also getting more ice time when the team is shorthanded and is becoming a reliable penalty-killer. He uses his reach to deflect passes and shots and has even generated a few shorthanded scoring chances.
Kakko had four goals and four assists in his first 27 games this season, but started producing more once Gallant reunited the “Kid Line.” Their line forechecked effectively and consistently managed to sustain pressure in the offensive zone, creating lots of scoring chances. They played especially well in a comeback 4-3 victory over the RIval New Jersey Devils on Dec. 12, and Kakko scored a clutch goal to tie the game at three.
In another rivalry matchup against the New York Islanders on Dec. 22, a rare Kakko defensive mistake led to a breakaway goal for Mathew Barzal. However, he bounced back, scoring the game-winning goal with a quick shot into the top corner of the net with less than three minutes remaining in the third period.
Gallant has now moved Kakko up to the Rangers’ top line alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. In New York’s 5-3 victory over the Florida Panthers on Jan. 1, he made two beautiful passes to set up each of his linemates for a goal. He now has five goals and four assists in his last 11 games. In total, he has nine goals and eight assists in 38 games with just one of his points coming on the power play as he plays on the team’s scarcely-used second power-play unit.
For Kakko and the Rangers Moving Forward
Though Kakko did not play up to expectations immediately, the Rangers remained patient and showed faith in him. He improved his defensive play first and is now starting to show that he can become a bigger contributor offensively as well. He has earned his promotion to the first line and made the most of the opportunity against the Panthers. He has certainly given the team a big boost and now the key for him is proving that he can continue to play at this level consistently.