It would be safe to assume that this season is not going the way Kaapo Kakko imagined it would as far as points go. Through 24 games this season, Kakko only has four goals and two assists. Two of those goals, one of which was an empty-netter, came in his last game against a Buffalo Sabres team that has lost 15 straight. The points are not there but they are not indicative of Kakko’s play so far this season. Kakko has played very well this season but has yet to make much impact on the scoresheet. The young winger’s play is extremely encouraging considering the strides he has made since his rookie year, but he will have to build off of the two-goal game and start collecting some more points.
He was expected to have a much better season, and he has impressed thus far. Kakko looks like a much different player than the one who suited up for the New York Rangers last season. That being said, the production needs to improve. Kakko is expected to become a top-six player in the league – those are the guys teams are looking at to score goals. If a team’s top six is not scoring, there is a problem and the Rangers already faced that problem earlier this season. Kakko has played some top-six minutes but his points do not suggest those of a level a true NHL top-six forward would have yet.
Kakko’s Play Is of no Concern, But He Needs to Produce
His overall play has been leaps and bounds better than in his subpar rookie year – he is much more effective on the boards, he is creating turnovers in all three zones and is no longer such a big liability defensively. As a matter of fact, Kakko is tied for the team lead in takeaways with star defenseman Adam Fox with 21 despite missing seven games. He also leads the team (among players who have skated in at least 10 games) in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage (CF%) at 54.73. Despite that, the Rangers need offense from him. He is expected to play a huge role in New York’s next window of Stanley Cup contention – 6 points through 24 games is not going to be enough. Yes, Kakko is getting chances and setting up his teammates for some chances as well, but he needs to start finishing.
Spending the majority of the game in the offensive zone and keeping the puck away from the opposing team is a great thing – you want to be the team possessing the puck, especially in today’s game. All of that doesn’t mean much when you fail to put the puck in the net, however. At 5-on-5, Kakko has an expected-goals for (xGF) of 12.23 according to Natural Stat Trick, but has only been on the ice for 10 goals for, six of which he has collected a point on. In other words, he is struggling to score. His shooting percentage is at only 8% this season – the league average since 2009 has been around 9% and Kakko shot at 9.2% as a rookie.
He is making plays happen but New York could use an offensive boost from him finishing more opportunities. The Rangers are tied for 13th in the league in 5-on-5 goals for with the Pittsburgh Penguins, both teams have 63. The Rangers are currently on the outside of the playoff picture with 32 points. They sit in sixth place in the East Division, four points behind the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot. The problem there is, Boston has played three fewer games with 10 remaining against the Sabres and the New Jersey Devils, the two bottom teams in the division. The Rangers play them two more times as well – a few more goals from Kakko could play a big difference in how the Rangers playoff push plays out.
This Season Has Not Been Easy for Kakko
Kakko has been bounced around the lineup for a large majority of the season, finding himself alongside fellow young players like Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere but also with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. When a player is constantly being moved around, it can be hard to develop chemistry with the other two guys out there. He did replace Colin Blackwell on the second line midway through the Rangers’ last game – if he can stay on that line he should absolutely see an uptick in his offensive production. Strome and Panarin were coaching Kakko between plays – that guidance from the veterans could be just what Kakko needs. He is still only 20, after all.
The Finnish winger has also found himself on the team’s COVID protocol a few times, having even contracted the virus last month. (From ‘ Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko set to return vs. NJ Devils after COVID 19,’ from New York Post, 03/05/2021). He admitted that he had some difficulty getting back in the swing of things with the time off. The Rangers have already seen one star in Mika Zibanejad struggle with the after-effects of the virus – there is also the chance that Kakko has felt some adverse effects since he is more at risk due to his diabetes. His two-goal game should help him gain some confidence since it had been 20 games since his last tally. Perhaps that first goal was all he needed to get the metaphorical monkey off his back.
Kakko is an immensely talented hockey player and will no doubt be a great player for years to come. He has looked really good on the ice this season but has had problems finishing. If the Rangers really want to get back to playing post-season hockey, getting Kakko back to his scoring ways will be an important part of their push. He has all of the tools to be a dangerous player, it is just a matter of making it all click. Even without his production being where it probably should, it is too early to be concerned about Kakko. He looks very good out there for a 20-year-old sophomore, he will be fine.
Currently a writer for the New York Rangers, University of New Hampshire alumn