Rangers Need Kakko to Step Up in 2022-23

The New York Rangers got key contributions from their “Kid Line” of Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko during their playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final. However, the season ended on a sour note for Kakko, as head coach Gerard Gallant scratched him for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay ended up winning the game and eliminated the Rangers.

This offseason, Kakko signed a two-year, $4.2 million contract extension with New York. This will be an important season for the 21-year-old, as he looks to break out and play to his full potential.

Kakko’s Inconsistent Play

Though Kakko has not played poorly with the Rangers, he has not yet played at a consistently high level for an entire season. As a rookie, during the 2019-20 season, he made a few highlight-reel plays but struggled defensively and shied away from battles for the puck. He scored just two goals in a 48-game stretch but still finished the season with 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games, including an overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
The New York Rangers need Kaapo Kakko to step up this season (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kakko got stronger and became a reliable forward defensively during his second season in 2020-21. However, he struggled to score and had a 19-game stretch with no goals, as he became stronger on the puck and helped the Rangers control play in the offensive zone, but simply couldn’t finish off his scoring opportunities. He also missed a few weeks with an upper-body injury and finished the season with nine goals and eight assists in 48 games.

Related: Rangers Would Be Taking Big Risk in Giving up on Kakko

This past season, Kakko’s inability to capitalize on scoring chances once again plagued him as he had a 14-game stretch with no goals. He played well defensively and even earned ice time on the penalty kill, but he did not take advantage of his opportunity to play on a line with Artemi Panarin at even strength. Another upper-body injury kept him out of the lineup for more than two months and he ended up with seven goals and 11 assists in 43 games.

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Fortunately, Kakko returned from his injury just in time for the playoffs and his line (with Chytil and Lafreniere) proved to be one of New York’s most effective trios at even strength. He didn’t break out offensively like Chytil did or play with the physicality that Lafreniere did, but his ability to hold on to the puck and make smart plays helped make the line successful, as he finished with two goals and three assists in 19 playoff games.

Kakko Will Have Big Opportunity in 2022-23

This offseason, the Rangers lost three of their top-six forwards from last season as Andrew Copp, Ryan Strome, and Frank Vatrano all signed with new teams during free agency. New York added Vincent Trocheck, who will become their second-line center, but that still leaves two open spots in their top six. If Kakko plays to his potential, he should be able to earn one of those spots.

Andrew Copp New York Rangers
The New York Rangers lost a few key forwards this offseason including Andrew Copp (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Rangers also lost a lot of their penalty-killing forwards in Copp, Strome, and Kevin Rooney. They may also end up losing Tyler Motte, who excelled while shorthanded last postseason. This is another area where Kakko can contribute and earn more ice time. His intelligence, strength, and long reach have made him a strong defender and it would certainly help the team if he can eventually become a trustworthy penalty-killer.

The Rangers need Kakko to stay healthy and avoid the extended scoring droughts that have hurt him in his first three seasons. He still has the potential to be a great player but he needs to take a step forward sooner rather than later.

Kakko & the Rangers Moving Forward

Though Kakko has a big opportunity next season, he also has a lot of competition, as the Rangers have a lot of young wingers including Lafreniere, Vitali Kravtsov, Brennan Othmann, and Will Cuylle who all want to prove that they deserve to play in the top six.

That competition makes this a crucial season for Kakko and it’s time for him to show that he deserves to be a top-six forward. He can certainly be a difference-maker for the Rangers if he plays to his potential.

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