Kaapo Kakko has all the hype in the world behind him entering his rookie season, and it might not take a lot to be the New York Rangers’ best player drafted from Finland — so long as he plays up to hopes.
Kakko was taken with the second-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, and he comes with a lot of hype behind him after his performance in Liiga during 2018-19. He finished with 38 points (a rookie league-record 22 goals and 16 assists) in 45 games and five points in five playoff games.
He won Liiga’s Jarmo Wasama Memorial Trophy and President’s Trophy — for rookie of the year and Finland’s most impressive player, respectively — and was the top European skater entering the draft. He also has three international gold medals on his resume. This includes leading his country to gold at the 2019 World Championships, where he impressed with seven points in 10 games, slick and speedy skating, and high hockey IQ.
Combine Kakko’s selection and NHL-ready potential with the Blueshirts’ additions of defenseman Jacob Trouba and fellow winger Artemi Panarin this offseason, New York’s future looks bright. While it’s super early to declare Kakko as a future Ranger great, or even a leader of the team, the impact and legacy he could leave are full of highs.
At the very least, there’s real potential that Kakko can be the greatest Finnish draft choice the Rangers ever made. The team has not had the greatest of luck with picks from the country. Hockey-Reference lists 19 players — including Kakko and fellow 2019 draftee Leevi Aaltonen — drafted by the Rangers coming from Finnish hockey leagues, with 16 born in Finland. Of those 16, just four ever laced up skates and put on a Blueshirts jersey.
Perhaps the Rangers’ best player from Finland is defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen, who was drafted with the 119th pick of the 1980 NHL Draft and might go down as one of the best offensive defensemen in team history, at the very least.
His professional career started with Karpat in 1975, scoring 66 points in 42 games during the 1976-77 season and 51 points in 34 games for 1980-81 — the latter seeing his team winning the Finnish Elite League title.
He joined the Rangers for the 1981-82 season and scored 56 points — the fewest he would score during his five-season tenure with the team. Ruotsalainen was not the biggest, but he was fast and could work the stick. He played so well, in fact, that, as explained in the New York Times, he was slotted as a forward during his time with the team “to take advantage of his speed and accurate shot.”
After spending most of 1986-87 in Finland, he was signed by the Edmonton Oilers late in the season. Playing alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Ruotsalainen helped the Oilers towards hoisting the Stanley Cup. He returned to Finland for two seasons before signing with the New Jersey Devils — and subsequently traded back to the Oilers, helping them win the Stanley Cup again.
Ruotsalainen, who also helped Finland to silver at the 1980 World Juniors and 1988 Olympics, played in his home country once again until his 1997-98 retirement.
The more casual Rangers followers might not know that not only is Kakko not the first Finnish player drafted by the team, but he’s also not even the first Finnish player drafted in the first round.
That honor went to left winger Lauri Korpikoski — coincidentally, an advocate of Kakko’s — 15 years ago when he was taken 19th overall in 2004. After his selection, Korpikoski spent two seasons in Finland with TPS before joining the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack for the final games of the 2005-06 season. He played two full AHL seasons, including a 50-point season in 2007-08, before joining the Rangers for the final game of their playoff run.
After a praiseworthy preseason, Korpikoski made the Rangers’ 2008-09 roster, the only rookie to do so. However, despite his playoff goal and preseason performance, he put up just 14 points in 68 games played. He was traded to the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in July 2009.
After a disappointing 2009-10, Korpikoski managed to put up 40 and 37 points, respectively, over the next two seasons. He signed a four-year extension after the shortened 2012-13 season, but was dealt to the Oilers on June 30, 2015, and placed on waivers exactly one year later.
Following a failed tryout with the Calgary Flames, Korpikoski scored 20 points in 60 games for the Dallas Stars before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he went scoreless before returning to Finland.
Though not particularly known for his NHL time, center Raimo Helminen has been part of the sport for over 25 years as a player and nearly 10 as a coach in the international scene.
Helminen spent five seasons with Ilves and put up 24 points in seven games, leading Finland to silver at the 1984 World Juniors. He also put up 57 points for Ilves in 1984-85, leading the team to its first Finnish Elite League title. Drafted by the Rangers 35th overall in 1984, he put up 40 points in 1985-86, but was traded to the Minnesota North Stars the next season.
He floundered in the minors before returning to Ilves, helping Finland claim silver at the 1988 Winter Olympics. He got another NHL chance with the New York Islanders, but back problems plagued him and he returned to Finland. Helminen then spent seven seasons with Malmo IF and 12 more with Ilves before retiring after 2007-08. He also helped Finland to two Olympic bronze medals and a gold at the 1995 World Championships.
Helminen is now a coach for the KHL’s Jokerit and will be the head coach for Finland’s 2020 World Juniors team.
Debuting in 1980, defenseman Simo Saarinen played four seasons with HIFK and was a member of the 1982 and 1983 World Juniors teams — scoring six points in seven games both times. He was drafted by the Rangers 193rd overall in 1982 and joined the NHL team for the 1984-85 season.
Injuries plagued his brief time with the franchise, keeping him scoreless in nine games played. He returned to Finland the next season, going back to HIFK until retirement.
Maybe it’s too early to go promoting Kakko as the savior of the franchise in their rebuild. He hasn’t taken the ice yet. If these picks (and the Rangers history of picks from his country) show anything, nothing is for certain.
But one has to wonder how he’ll hold up as a Ranger compared to his fellow countrymen. If he plays up to his potential and expectations, it’s very possible he could top them all.