It’s been tough sledding so far for New York Rangers rookie forward Kaapo Kakko. The 19-year-old Finn has yet to show his true nature to the NHL, but that might change very soon.
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Kakko made his debut in 2017 in the Finnish Liiga at age 16. By the late stages of the 2018-19 season, he was a dominating player for TPS Turku. The season was highlighted with Team Finland’s gold medals at the U18, U20 and World Championships. He learned to win, he got used to being the best.
No wonder Kakko came to New York brimming with confidence in the fall of 2019. When exhibition games started, he was ready to own Madison Square Garden. In his very first preseason outing with the Rangers squad, he played on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. Life was good.
Kakko Hits a Cold Snap
Although his first NHL games were unspectacular, Kakko scored his first goal on Oct. 12 against the Edmonton Oilers. The high didn’t last and things went south—fast. After another subpar game (he had one goal and a minus-six rating in six contests) he opened up:
Hockey isn’t much fun for me right now. Things haven’t started to roll. Sometimes I feel I could get more ice time and play on the top line. I understand why I haven’t got that chance: my performances haven’t been that good.
I was a bit frustrated after my second game already. My goal is to play a leading role on the team. I don’t want to hear how young I am or how much time I need to adjust. I want, immediately, to be the player who scores game-winning goals.– Kaapo Kakko, on Oct. 20, 2019
Hot Streak Comes and Goes for Kaapo Kakko
At some point, being assigned to the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack sounded like a great idea. But no: head coach David Quinn decided to put his trust in the young Finn, who soon started to deliver. Through eight games in late October and early November, he averaged a point-per-game. That high didn’t last, either.
So began a long, frustrating phase in Kakko’s rookie season. He didn’t seem to adapt to his new environment far from home and it showed in his game. He still had his chances on the power play and clocked decent minutes on the third line, but 18 games flew by without a goal. The cold streak finally ended in the first game of 2020 when he scored a goal and an assist against the Calgary Flames.
Now, after 55 NHL games (he missed four games due to minor injuries), Kakko mainly plays on the third line and the second power-play unit. He’s recorded eight goals and 20 points and is on pace for 28 points. It’s worth noting that last summer’s top draft selections aren’t thriving: the New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes (first overall) has 20 points, and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach (third overall) has 19.
Comparing Kaapo Kakko
Although he’s a second-overall pick, it makes little sense to compare Kakko to Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, who were born to play the North American style of hockey and earn their living as centers. Instead, it’s worth comparing the young Finn to a more suitable peer group: European wingers who started their NHL careers at the age of 18.
Today, David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins is one of the premier goal scorers in the game. As of Feb. 20, he has 43 tallies this season. Comparing Kakko to Pastrnak may seem like a long shot now but you should remember that it wasn’t all fun and games for Pastrnak in the beginning, either: in his first season, he scored 27 points in 46 games and spent some time with the Providence Bruins of the AHL.
Carolina Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov means business. He’s quickly becoming a sniper who’s ready to score game-winning goals every night, be it lightning-fast snap shots or lacrosse-style showpieces. His rookie year? He scored 20 goals and 37 points in 82 games.
In terms of Finnish players, it’s hard to bypass Patrik Laine. Unlike Kakko, Pastrnak, and Svechnikov, the Winnipeg Jets hotshot became an NHL star right away. He scored 36 goals in his rookie season, including three hat tricks. The road also became bumpy for Laine later. After some bad spells, he’s doing great again and this season, he has 25 goals and 56 points.
Kaapo Kakko: The Outlook
One doesn’t adapt to a different culture and a different game overnight. Kakko is advancing promisingly on both fronts, but there’s still a hard road ahead. His work ethic must remain high. That’s the only way he’ll ever see results. After a few more goals and assists, he’ll get his confidence back. The upcoming trade deadline is likely to boost Kakko’s chances for more responsibility in the top six and on the power play. However, there aren’t many games left in the season. But, such is the natural talent of this player that his rise to stardom–next season at the latest–seems inevitable.
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