Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko Looks Revitalized After Disappointing Rookie Season

The New York Rangers are only six games into the 56-game shortened season, and while the team has been struggling early on, they do have to be happy with the play of Kaapo Kakko. The 2019 second overall pick did not come close to the lofty expectations he had as a rookie. Kakko was one of the weakest players defensively, not just on the Rangers but in the entire NHL.

The Stats Look Much Better

According to Natural Stat Trick, Kakko posted an abysmal even strength Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 43.95%, a shots for percent (SF%) of 43.83% and a goals for percent (GF%) of 31.82% in 66 games in 2019-20. The Finnish winger scored 10 goals and had 13 assists for 23 points as a teenager. Kakko also finished the season a -26, and when he was on the ice, the Rangers were being outshot, out-chanced and outscored by a good margin. As of late, he looks revitalized and looks like a much different player.

This season, Kakko has made major improvements to those same stats, bumping them over 50%. In short, when he is on the ice, the Rangers are generally the team controlling play. His CF% has boosted up to 51.45%, his SF% is now 54.93%, and his GF% is 40%. His goals for is still sub-par, but he has only been out for five goals, two for and three against. One of those was in the nightmarish season-opener where nobody in a Rangers’ sweater looked good.

Kaapo Kakko Rangers Draft
Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

The Rangers had an encouraging sight in the playoff bubble, where Kakko was arguably the team’s best skater. He looked dangerous with the puck, and it appeared he found the confidence his game was lacking during the regular season. He was effective in staving off defenders and moving the puck in the offensive zone. While he did not dent the scoresheet, the Rangers should definitely be happy with the way Kakko played. It was just a glimpse of what the young winger is capable of.

Kakko Has Been Better in the Eye Test

So far this season, it appears Kakko has picked up right where he left off in the bubble. He found chemistry alongside fellow young gun Filip Chytil, and the two have been fairly dominant so far. The pair have played 41:15 together at even strength and have controlled most of that time in the offensive zone. While the two have only scored two goals together, they have been dominating the number of scoring chances 17-7, a 70% SCF%. 

While some of that is due to the fact Chytil has been playing spectacular hockey himself, it is also a testament to Kakko being able to up his level of play. Kakko’s confidence with the puck is still evident, and he has been winning puck battles along the boards. He has been using his size and strength to control the puck far more often and with more success when he does. When he does this, he draws defenders to him and opens up ice for his teammates. He has been one of the Rangers’ best forwards consistently this season while only averaging 13:50. He’s elevated his play and has become a factor in games.

The points may not be where he would like with only two goals in six games, but the team should be more focused on his overall game. Six games is a small sample size, but Kakko has been a far better player so far than he was as a rookie. Even with Chytil set to be out for the long term, Kakko still has the ability to create offense on his own. It appears his new center will be Brett Howden, who he struggled with last season, and the two posted poor possession numbers again in their first game back.  

Kakko has been making big splashes in games despite his lack of ice time. In the Rangers 5-0 win over the Islanders, he only played 10:37 but still was dominant. While out there, he out-chanced the Islanders 5-0 and outshot them 7-1; he also scored his first goal of the season. (from ‘Rangers’ Kakko dropped from second line, but scores in rematch vs. Isles,’ Newsday, 01/17/2021). The game against the New Jersey Devils and the first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins were similar. The most ice time Kakko has seen in one game this season is 15:47, which was his first game reunited with Howden. 

It is apparent that Kakko has left his struggles as a rookie in the rearview mirror and is pushing ahead. The arrival of Alexis Lafreniere in the draft could be a factor, as much of the pressure is off Kakko’s shoulders as the big rookie in the big city. Kakko’s play early on is very encouraging for his future, mainly in his renewed confidence. He looks more like the player who kept pace with men in Finland before the Rangers drafted him.

Given how the Rangers are still in the development phase, the important thing will be to see if Kakko can bring consistency to his game. He is showing he has the ability to be a big part in controlling play, but the key is how many games in a season he can do that. At the moment, he is giving every reason to believe he can be a consistent threat for the Rangers.

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