Rangers Should Reunite the ‘Kid Line’ When Kakko Returns

Soon, the New York Rangers will welcome back Kaapo Kakko to the lineup. With the brilliant play of deadline acquisitions Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, and Tyler Motte, the return of the Blueshirts’ second-overall pick in 2019 will strengthen a suddenly deep roster. The big question now, though, is where will the Finnish product slot into this now crowded lineup?

Coach Gerard Gallant has emphasized his willingness to try new lineups, especially with the recent acquisitions entering the fold. Currently sitting in second in the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers are looking like a dangerous team, and will likely get even more dangerous once Kakko, Ryan Strome, and Kevin Rooney return.

Since the deadline, the Rangers have improved on all fronts, strengthening their lineup and improving their biggest flaw; five-on-five play. They have defeated the Penguins twice in a row, and have won seven of their last nine contests. Tinkering with this group’s success could lead to trouble, but the ‘next man up’ mentality has served the Blueshirts well all season long.

As General Manager Chris Drury sits back and enjoys his deadline success, the return of Kakko gives the Rangers some much-needed lineup flexibility and increased depth.

What Will the Lines Be When Kakko Returns?

Gallant can go in several directions once Kakko returns, but the play of Copp and Vatrano in their new roles makes moving them rather difficult. Vatrano has tallied five goals since joining the Rangers, and has looked great playing right wing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In Strome’s absence, Copp is in a similar boat, meshing with Artemi Panarin. Copp has two goals and five assists since he was acquired, proving to be everything the Rangers’ hoped he would be when they traded for him. His flexibility allows him to move around the lineup, but if he can bring the best out of Panarin and possibly Strome, keeping him in the top-six seems inevitable.

That scenario creates a problem for Kakko, who, before getting injured, showed glimpses of brilliance in that right-wing spot on the second line. If I were a guessing man, I would think the lineup unfolds like this once Kakko returns:

  • Kreider – Zibanejad – Vatrano
  • Panarin – Strome – Copp
  • Lafreniere – Chytil – Kakko
  • Motte – Goodrow – Reaves/Hunt

If Gallant opts to utilize that group, it is deep and talented along all four lines. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for that top-nine, and the fourth line, as evidenced by a grueling performance in a 5-4 win against the Red Wings, can be pests on the forecheck.

Related: Rangers Must Address Forward Logjam Before the Postseason

This lineup can control the pace of play, and, as exemplified over the last handful of games, is capable of beating outstanding teams. The one dilemma is the defensive responsibility of the third line, something that the head coach has been quite privy to in recent matches.

Alexis Lafreniere has been benched in the final minutes of close games for more defensive-minded forwards, and in the postseason, Gallant might have an even shorter leash. But reuniting the ‘kids line’ could be suitable for all parties involved.

Reuniting the Kids Line

Adding Kakko to the mix allows for a fun and skilled line of three prized youngsters. Kakko, who is the most responsible of the group, has shown great strides in his end since joining the Rangers during the 2019-20 season. His projected linemates, Filip Chytil and Lafreniere, have shown good chemistry and offensive touch. They are creative with the puck, and have found their stride in transition.

Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kakko could be the defensive spark that provides even more fuel to their transition game, and not a knock on Barclay Goodrow, but Kakko’s offensive upside allows Lafreniere and Chytil to have another potent option when making plays with the puck.

All three of these forwards have been forced to learn on the fly without the benefit of maximum power-play time. Putting them together could be the creative spark that ignites all three’s game and gives the Rangers a formidable offensive group.

Chytil and Lafreniere have had above a 50% Corsi-For percentage together the past three games, which were wins over the Red Wings, Penguins, and Sabres (Per Natural Stat Trick). Adding Kakko could boost them, but more importantly, it could boost him, having struggled before his injury.

Continuing Their Winning Ways

The Rangers have 14 games remaining, nine of which are against non-playoff teams. This is the perfect time to see what the young trio has, especially when they are blanketed by talented lines ahead of them. If the trial run seems to fail, Gallant knows he can swap Copp and Kakko and have success, so there is no pressure to force the issue.

Having a deep roster and success amongst the bottom two lines in the postseason is essential. For the Rangers to have that success, both down the stretch and in the postseason, I believe reuniting the ‘kids line’ is a crucial part. Ultimately, the decision lies in the hands of the man behind the bench, but wouldn’t it be fun to see three first-round picks out there together in meaningful games this late in the season?

The answer is yes.

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