At just 20 years of age, Kaapo Kakko started to heat up this season with the New York Rangers right before he landed on the COVID-19 NHL protocol list. The prior year’s second overall draft pick had a slow start to his NHL career, but he quickly proved that this season he would tell a different story.
Feb 1st was Kakko’s first time on the list. He only missed a game, but his second encounter led to the young Finn missing six games. Roughly twenty days from his first COVID absence, Kakko was deemed out again with an indefinite time frame. His return to the lineup was much anticipated and it finally rolled around in early March. His role on the young team is vital, his absence and reunion equally proved such.
Prior to his second placement on the list, Kakko had three points in 14 games, but his presence was more commanding on the ice, and it was obvious he was more comfortable shooting from different areas of the ice. He also looked a lot more confident with the puck on his stick and enjoyed more consistent ice time. At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, he saw anywhere from 10 to 19 minutes but consistently saw close to 18 minutes his two games back.
He also was in the habit of consistently laying hits in consecutive games before his departure, but the good news is that it’s a part of his game that continued when he rejoined the team as well. Here’s a closer look at his first two games back.
Kakko Against the New Jersey Devils
In his first game back on March 6, Kakko received 17:56 of time on ice and collected one assist, a secondary on Ryan Strome’s first-period goal. He was hard not to notice on the ice; the Finn returned from illness better than most had likely anticipated.
Following practice prior to his first game back, Kakko stated that time in the offensive zone and getting scoring chances were aspects of his game that worked well for him. That’s also largely what we saw from him in New Jersey from the start. After all, the Strome goal came from Kakko creating the chance in the offensive zone with a nice heads-up play. Within the first period, he already had two snapshot attempts on net himself as well.
Later in the game, he drew a penalty and did not shy away from hitting. It was clear Kakko was able to join right back and keep up with the pace as if he was never out. The Rangers desperately needed that to be the outcome. March’s stretch of games for the Rangers thus far included large contributions from the kids in particular, and Kakko’s contributions are equally important in this age group. His strong return to the season should only fortify the confidence he has so clearly cultivated this season.
Kakko Against the Pittsburgh Penguins
Kakko’s two most recent performances, March 7 and 9, would never have hinted that the young player had a bout of the virus. Both nights against the prosperous Pittsburgh Penguins, he played a high-energy game, often slotting himself into perfect position but was still unable to capitalize. This will come with time, though. In spite of the aggravating losses, there is a lot to like about his individual game.
Kakko fell victim to a few defensive errors evident in Pittsburgh, but he is playing a strong game right now despite those missed games. His overall performance largely changed from his rookie season, and he shows he is able to carry that over from game to game. Even watching one period of Kakko, his confidence is highly visible.
Last night, Kakko was seen pestering several Penguins’ defensemen for the puck on the forecheck and drove to the net to receive passes. The Rangers’ forecheck is still a work in progress, but Kakko showed no hesitation trying to pick the puck away from the opposition head-on. He skated confidently with the puck, even along the boards with pressure, and showed that he can protect the puck and still execute a pass to an open teammate.
Though he collected one point since his return, he exceedingly passes the eye test. His team dropped two of the three games he was present for, and the Penguins undoubtedly made it difficult to create scoring opportunities. Amazingly enough, the sickness still does not seem to impact his performance in only three games back or stifle his ability to build on top of each game. He had no issue keeping up with his veteran linemates, Strome and Chris Kreider, who are thriving on their own chemistry as well. Battling the challenges of COVID-19 has not left the Rangers club unscathed, and each player who came in contact with the virus had different experiences and outcomes.
While the Rangers are still far from contending for the Stanley Cup, they need to see their young core perform consistently. It’s not a secret that Kakko is part of the future on Broadway, and the improvements from his freshman to sophomore year should be a reassurance, and the rapid improvement shows hope of continual development.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and earned a degree in Communications and English. After she moved to Pittsburgh for school, she fell in love with the vibrant hockey community but she was raised in a household that rooted for a different team — the New York Rangers. Rachel covers the Rangers at thehockeywriters.com and she can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.