Rangers’ Kakko Deserves a Bigger Role Next Season

The New York Rangers have a trio of skilled young forwards in Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, and Filip Chytil. All three spent most of this season playing together on the third line, and they also spent the majority of their time on the team’s scarcely used second power-play unit.

Though Kakko has not yet turned into the star the Rangers hoped for when they drafted him second overall in 2019, he has steadily improved. Last season was his most consistent one yet, and he deserves a bigger role with the team next season.

Kakko’s Play With the Rangers

Kakko made his NHL debut at just 18 years old and spent the entire 2019-20 season with the Rangers. He scored his first goal against the Edmonton Oilers with a beautiful deke and scored an overtime winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins a few weeks later. He had a few great moments but struggled with the physicality of the NHL. He also scored just two goals over a 48-game stretch and ended the season with 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko has steadily improved with the New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The following season, Kakko dramatically improved his defensive play and became much stronger on the puck. His Corsi For percentage in 2020-21 was 56.1. However, despite his strong overall play he still went through some extended scoring droughts and missed time with injuries, finishing the season with nine goals and eight assists in 48 games.

Related: Rangers Might Have Finally Found Way Forward for Lafreniere & Kakko

During the 2021-22 season, Kakko continued to play well defensively but he also continued going through scoring slumps and missed more time with injuries. As a result of a few different injuries as well as the shortened season, he finished with seven goals and 11 assists in 43 games. He passed up a lot of good opportunities to shoot and failed to convert on some great scoring chances.

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Kakko played well at even strength in the postseason and his “Kid Line” with Chytil and Lafreniere was the Rangers’ most effective one for most of the postseason. However, he only produced two goals and three assists in 19 games and painfully missed a wide-open net in their Game 1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Surprisingly, he was benched for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Blueshirts lost that game 2-1, ending their postseason run.

Kakko’s Strong 2022-23 Season

Though Kakko’s 2021-22 season ended in disappointment, he did not complain or demand a trade as some of the Rangers’ top prospects have done in recent years. Instead, he improved his play and had his best season yet.

Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko had a strong 2022-23 season with the New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This season Kakko became very effective on the forecheck, winning battles and helping the Rangers maintain puck possession. He also drove to the front of the net more often and was able to score a few goals on rebounds.

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Though Kakko averaged only 15:18 in ice time per game, he made the most of his opportunities and was much more consistent this season. Even when he had trouble finishing off scoring chances, he was still a noticeable and effective player. He played in all 82 games, and set career highs with 18 goals and 22 assists.

In addition to his strong play at even strength, Kakko also proved to be a reliable penalty killer this season, using his reach to break up passes while rarely getting caught out of position.

For Kakko and the Rangers Moving Forward

With wingers Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko both set to become unrestricted free agents and unlikely to return to the Rangers, Kakko should get more ice time in 2023-24. Though he played on the third line this season, he performed like a top-six forward. His strong two-way play should certainly earn him a bigger role with the Rangers.

With a new coach coming in, and the possibility of more ice time for Kakko both at even strength and on the power play, 60 points should be a realistic possibility. He is the best right-winger they have signed for 2023-24, and they need him to continue his strong play in order for the team to reach its potential.

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