Rangers’ Kakko Being Surpassed by 2019 Draft Classmates

When it comes to Kaapo Kakko, all the New York Rangers can do is wait.

Despite being surprisingly scratched by coach Gerard Gallant in the team’s final game of last season, a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Blueshirts remain committed to the potential of the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Signing him to a two-year bridge contract in the offseason, the front office maintains high hopes for the Finnish power forward who was one of the two consensus top prospects three years ago.

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Kakko’s peers from his draft class, however, have been ratcheting up the pressure on him ever since.

While the 21-year-old right wing has been feeling his way for three seasons since arriving in the NHL, more than a few of his fellow draftees from that first round have been on the rise. Regardless of any public statements to the contrary, that has to render the Rangers front office at least somewhat anxious as they wait for Kakko to start delivering on the promise they saw in his eye-opening play in Finland’s top league, and more of the same in the 2019 World Championships.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blueshirts watched a teenaged Kakko dominate against older players when he piled up 22 goals and 16 assists in 45 games for TPS Turku in 2018-19, and then scored six goals in 10 games at worlds that season. That precocious level of play, however, hasn’t carried into the NHL, as Kakko has totaled 26 goals and 32 assists in 157 games on Broadway.

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Anything but an instant success at the highest level, Kakko’s overall game has improved, with a Corsi for percentage over 50 for all three of his NHL seasons. After posting a minus-26 rating as a rookie, Kakko is plus-12 over the past two seasons.

Kakko’s 2019 NHL Draft Classmates Are on the Move

As encouraging as that development has been for the Rangers, they didn’t draft Kakko to simply play a sound game. Having earned some rare draft lottery luck in 2019 (and then 2020), the Blueshirts jumped at the chance to pick a player they thought would become an elite scorer for them for years to come.

Beset by inconsistency and injuries, though, Kakko has yet to offer strong evidence that such a player is about to emerge. While that wasn’t as big a deal in his first two seasons, Jack Hughes, Moritz Seider, Trevor Zegras, Matt Boldy, Cole Caufield and others are making it tougher and tougher to stomach.

With the exception of Hughes, who was seen as a slightly better prospect than Kakko at the time of the 2019 draft and went first overall to the New Jersey Devils as expected, all of those other players were picked after Kakko and appear to be on their way to establishing themselves as stars. The Detroit Red Wings’ Seider (drafted sixth overall) won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year for 2021-22, looking like a stalwart top-pair, right-side defenseman who can generate offense. Zegras (Anaheim Ducks, ninth) has become one of the young faces of the league, thanks to the

“>dazzling stick skills that landed him on the cover of EA Sports’ “NHL 23” video game – not to mention his 61-point breakout last season.

Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes, drafted just before Kakko, had 56 points in 49 games last season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Boldy (12th, Minnesota Wild) racked up 39 points in 47 games in 2021-22, and Caufield (15th, Montreal Canadiens) had 23 goals and 20 assists in 67 contests a season ago. There are others – Bowen Byram (fourth) and Alex Newhook (16th) played important roles for the Colorado Avalanche in their run to the 2022 Stanley Cup, and Dylan Cozens (seventh, Buffalo Sabres) and Vasily Podkolzin (10th, Vancouver Canucks) have also shown signs that their games are trending upward.

Kakko, by contrast, had seven goals and 11 assists in 43 games last season.

The Rangers aren’t going to judge Kakko against the development arcs of other players. The fact is, though, that 2022-23 represents a big season for him, one in which another halting performance will likely raise the concern level more significantly than in previous seasons.

Perhaps that concern, however, actually started ratcheting up in June, when the 21-year-old found himself out of the lineup for what turned out to be the Rangers’ season-ender.

“Kakko is an all-world player who’s still developing,” Rangers general manager Chris Drury said shortly afterward, before inking the restricted free agent for two years and $4.2 million in July. “He and I had a real good discussion before he left (for the offseason). There’s obviously a lot of belief from me and the staff of what his future holds. I know he’s excited for a good offseason and to come back next year and be ready.”

The scratch, though, still says plenty – and will likely hang over Kakko until, or if, he establishes himself as an up-and-coming young star.

Kakko, Hughes Were Viewed as Nearly the Same Going Into Draft

Waiting for that to happen hasn’t been easy for the fan base, which hoped for an immediate high-draft pick force and instead got what can probably now be described as a project. Making that increasingly difficult to deal with – perhaps at least somewhat for the front office, as well as the faithful – is the clear evidence that Kakko’s draft class appears to be full of dynamic kids who represent the future of the NHL.

Kakko was supposed to be one of those, in fact better than all except perhaps the guy who went before him. His drive toward the top of the pre-draft rankings in 2019 was so impressive that there seemed to be legitimate question as to whether the Devils would take Hughes or might go with Kakko instead – and that the Rangers, picking second, couldn’t lose either way. The two players were viewed as far and away the best available that year.

Kaapo Kakko Rangers Draft
Kakko after being drafted second overall in 2019 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s possible Kakko might indeed end up being better than most of his draft class. Yet as Hughes, Seider, Zegras, Caufield, et al have begun to thrive, Kakko has treaded water. Why is that?

It’s hard to say, with Kakko still having less than two full NHL seasons worth of games under his belt. Yet a look at his entry into the league might be instructive. New to North America, 18 years old and unfamiliar with the English language, style of play and customs, it’s fair to speculate whether Kakko was, in fact, rushed and unready. Seider, Zegras, Boldy and Caufield spent at least some time in the American Hockey League, and all of their transitions to the NHL proved to be less halting.

A development period in the AHL is hardly a requirement for high draft picks to find success, of course – Hughes and Cozens didn’t play a game in the minors, and Byram spent only two games in the AHL. Yet looking back at Kakko’s struggles in 2019-20, one can’t help but wonder if some time with the Hartford Wolf Pack might have eased his route to Madison Square Garden.

Related: Rangers Should Give Nils Lundkvist Another Chance

Not having another Finnish player on the roster – or perhaps an assistant coach who spoke his language – around him could have further affected Kakko’s comfort level as he changed continents as an 18-year-old. Forward Ville Meskanen, a native of Tampere, Finland, played 20 games for the Wolf Pack in 2019-20. Meskanen has since returned to his native country to play.

The Rangers seemed to passively acknowledge that error with Kakko last season, when they signed veteran Patrik Nemeth to pair with fellow Swede Nils Lundkvist as the highly-regarded rookie defenseman made the team, as expected, out of training camp.

Trevor Zegras Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras, drafted seven spots after Kakko, is one of the NHL’s rising stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To be fair, Kakko is hardly the only player selected high in the 2019 draft to get off to a slow start. Center Kirby Dach, picked third, mostly failed to impress with the Chicago Blackhawks and was traded to Montreal at the draft in July. Forward Alex Turcotte, taken fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings, just made his NHL debut last season, playing in eight games and recording no points.

Rangers Want to See Progress From Kakko Soon

Yet eventually, a slow start becomes something much more worrisome. A look at the 2017 draft provides a cautionary tale, with four of the first five picks being Nico Hischier, Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Elias Petterson. The other member of that group was Nolan Patrick, like Kakko taken second overall. The center struggled to make a big impact in three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers before being traded to the Nashville Predators and then immediately to the Vegas Golden Knights, for whom he recorded seven points in 25 games in 2021-22. It’s fair to say that not too many people are still ticketing Patrick for certain stardom at this point.

That’s why 2022-23 might prove to be pivotal for Kakko. With three NHL seasons under his belt and a legitimate shot to earn a top-six spot at right wing – either on a line with winger Artemi Panarin or with Mika Zibanejad as his center – the time is now for him to begin to unlocking the potential that made the Rangers giddy over the chance to snap him up with the No. 2 pick three years ago. There’s little question about his gifts; Kakko’s elite hands, ability to work the walls and get to the net are still there. Putting all of that together, though, has to start happening soon.

Filip Chytil New York Rangers
Kakko (r) found chemistry with Filip Chytil (l) on the Rangers’ Kid Line during the playoffs (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Rangers’ four-year rebuild began to bear fruit in the form of their unexpected run to the conference finals last season, but taking the next step and achieving perennial Stanley Cup contender status hinges significantly on whether they turned their good lottery fortune – the No. 2 pick in 2019 that yielded Kakko and the No. 1 selection in 2020 that brought Alexis Lafreniere – into a pair of eventual franchise cornerstones. While Lafreniere’s first two seasons in the NHL were also up and down, he’s shown significantly more than Kakko has to this point.

The Rangers need to see Kakko start to rise this season. If he doesn’t, his fellow first-round alums from the 2019 draft will likely to make it hard not to notice.