Eighty-nine games into his NHL career, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft remains a near-total mystery.
The New York Rangers can’t be at all sure yet what they have in winger Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish pre-draft phenom who, in a season-plus, hasn’t delivered any definitive signals about what he’ll eventually become. The pressing question now for the team that eagerly snapped him up after the New Jersey Devils took Jack Hughes first overall two years ago, is whether that uncertainty will hurt or help them in the next several months.
Kakko’s high-end skill shows up from time to time — the great hands, the touch with the puck down low, the work along the walls. There was a four-goal, three-assist spurt over seven games in October and November of his rookie season. A two-goal effort in the Rangers’ penultimate regular-season game last March, followed by an encouraging performance in the team’s three-game playoff sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in August.
Yet Kakko was a minus-27 over 69 total games in 2019-20 and posted possession and defensive numbers that can only be described as horrific. His 23 points were disappointing as well, but team management saw the encouraging late glimpses as an indicator that the 20-year-old was set to trend upward in Season 2.
That has happened, but it’s only added to the intrigue surrounding Kakko’s potential, not dispelled it. His advanced stats — so ugly in 2019-20 — are very strong this season. With a 53.86 Corsi For percentage, expected goals for percentage of 56.86 and scoring chances for and high danger chances for percentages also over 50, there’s lots of compelling evidence that good things happen for the Rangers when Kakko’s on the ice.
Despite those favorable numbers, Kakko hasn’t piled up the positive stats in two key categories: goals and assists. He has two and two in his 23 games, without a goal since the fourth game of the season on Jan. 22, and one assist in his last 14 games.
The competing results seem downright bizarre at times.
Pandemic Might be Affecting Kakko’s Development
Kakko also missed six games after landing in the COVID-19 protocol, only returning March 6 in a 6-3 victory over the Devils, but he went right back to doing good things. He delivered an assist on Ryan Strome’s first-period goal in that game and was a plus-2 in 18 minutes of work.
Years from now, we may look back on the 2020-21 NHL season as something of a throwaway one when it came to young player development. Routines have been disrupted, not to mention the past two seasons. Players find themselves removed from the lineup suddenly due to the COVID protocol, and the Rangers’ entire coaching staff has been no exception to that rule. Can the progress of a player who was a teenager until last month be accurately measured under the duress of a masked-up, socially-distant world that’s been turned upside down for more than a year now?
The answer might be no. Nonetheless, Kakko’s failure to pair offensive production with his significantly better all-around play makes the Rangers’ efforts to form an accurate evaluation of their prized second-year player that much harder — that’s a problem, because the club might need to make one as soon as this offseason.
That’s because general manager Jeff Gorton is expected to ramp up efforts to acquire more help at center, with Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel, the potential big fish, should he become available in a trade over the summer. Obtaining the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft will require significant capital in the form of young players and draft picks. The Rangers have to be as comfortable as possible — if the opportunity to acquire Eichel arises — that they aren’t giving away a future superstar in the process.
That comfort only comes with intimate knowledge of a player’s capabilities and future prospects, and there’s no way Gorton can claim he possesses that when it comes to Kakko at the moment.
Judging players this young is almost always difficult, of course. Filip Chytil also made his debut as an 18-year-old for the Rangers after being drafted 21st overall in 2017 and has alternated between tantalizing and frustrating them ever since. The trend lines since the start of last season have been more consistent, as it appears the talented center might be on the verge of breaking out. However, nearly four years after arriving, the Blueshirts still aren’t sure what they have in Chytil.
The 21-year-old Czech, though, was picked in the second half of the first round. Kakko was a top-three selection, the rarified draft air from which elite players are supposed to consistently emerge. Is it just a matter of time before that happens? Will the Rangers wait as long for Kakko as they have for Chytil?
Rest of Season Should Be Key Evaluation Period for Kakko
The Rangers have 26 games left in this regular season, more if they find a way into the playoffs, to formulate that assessment for a possible trade for Eichel or someone else this summer. Can Kakko give the general manager enough to go on in regards to his immediate future? Is he getting close to becoming a force, the rise of his all-around game a precursor to his offense catching up? Or is his slow NHL start an indicator that stardom not in the cards for the player who was dominant in the 2019 World Championships after recording 38 points in 45 games as a 17- and 18-year old in Finland’s Liiga during the 2018-19 season?
On the other side of the coin, the opaqueness surrounding Kakko’s potential could work in a positive way for the Rangers. His failure to set the league on fire to this point could mean the Sabres aren’t interested in him as part of a return for Eichel, which would prove convenient if he stays with the Rangers and then blossoms. Or, Buffalo bets on his ceiling while his stock remains high as a young player, and ends up having buyer’s regret when stardom proves elusive for Kakko.
Ultimately, Gorton would like to see Kakko rise to prominence in a Rangers jersey, finishing rushes with one-timers, battling around the net and playing a key role on the power play from his spot on the right side by the circle. Yet Eichel would be a huge get, exactly what the team needs, and they are are flush with talented wingers like Kakko. Is he a future fixture in the team’s top-six, or the featured asset heading to Western New York in a blockbuster trade?
Kakko has less than half of this pandemic-shortened season remaining to make his case.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.