A packed watch party at Madison Square Garden erupted when the New York Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. Now, the 20-year-old winger is in his third season on Broadway, and the mood around him is noticeably different. Skepticism surrounds him, as many wonder when his immense talent will finally shine through at the NHL level.
We have seen glimpses of his potential, but consistency has eluded the third-year pro. There was a five-game stretch earlier this campaign (November 14-24) where Kakko looked dominant with the puck. He tallied three goals and three assists during that span, but he has crashed down mightily since then. He has now gone 12-games without a goal and now will spend time on the injured reserve with an upper-body issue.
It needs to be said that Kakko is exceptionally young. It is not time to panic, but it is concerning that he seems to lack specific attributes that are required to be a consistent producer in the NHL (I will dive into that later on). The Rangers find themselves in a peculiar situation with the Finnish forward, as wingers are ahead of him on the depth chart and RFA negotiations are around the corner.
With just under two months until the March 21 trade deadline, the clock is ticking on general manager Chris Drury as he looks to make improvements to a club that currently sits in first place in the Metropolitan Division. Many other options are likely to be dealt before the former number two selection, but that does not mean his name will be entirely left out of trade conversations.
What Is Kakko’s Contractual Value?
In the final season of his entry-level contract (ELC), Kakko has tallied five goals and nine assists in 37 games. Offensively, it has been another quiet season for the highly-touted prospect, who has improved vastly since his rookie campaign on the defensive side of the puck.
His RFA negotiations will be highly intriguing, as his monetary value hinges on how much expectations and future impact weigh compared to concrete results. The Rangers likely view Alexis Lafreniere as their only young player more untouchable than Kakko, and for a good reason as well. If he figures it out at the NHL level, Kakko has all the skills to become a solid player for a long time.
The biggest problem with that statement is that it all hinges on an ‘If.’ The hype surrounding Kakko has yet to be reached, and the offensive potential seen at the World Juniors has yet to be found. Betting on your prospects is a necessary gamble, but you can pick which ones you can gamble on when you have the plethora of prospects that the Rangers have.
Drury and his staff will be walking the salary cap tightrope for the foreseeable future. Teams know this, making an offer sheet for Kakko something to be wary of. But as is the case with an offer sheet, what number, both in compensation and term, do the Rangers deem acceptable for Kakko?
The player selected before Kakko in the draft, Jack Hughes, earned an eight-year, $64 million contract by the New Jersey Devils. That is neither an option for the Rangers, nor something Kakko has earned. A better comparison would be Troy Terry, who signed a three-year, $4.35 million contract after his ELC expired, per CapFriendly.
Like Kakko, Terry struggled during his first three seasons, signing a team-friendly deal. This year, he scored 20 goals through his first 39 games, giving the Anaheim Ducks tremendous value. Thus far, Kakko is likely looking at a $2 million annual deal with his performance. It is very affordable, but if Kakko fails to breakout a la Terry, his trade value will drastically plummet, leaving the Rangers in a miserable situation.
Is it Better to Sell High?
There are numerous reasons for Kakko’s struggles through the early part of his career. Some of those reasons see the blame fall on him, some of them fall on the shoulders of the Rangers. Limited minutes, no power play time, and a revolving door of linemates have all contributed to a rough two-plus season thus far.
But even with that, Kakko, especially this season, has had chances to succeed and has failed to produce. His lack of speed stands out with and without the puck. Very rarely has he blown by a defender, and when he has open space with the puck, the opposition often closes the gap before he can make a solid play.
The NHL is a fast game, and the young Finnish forward seems overwhelmed by the speed physically and mentally. Speed isn’t something that can be taught, but elusiveness is. Kakko needs to become more elusive on the ice, finding ways to create chances to use his size and skill. Hope is not lost, but can the Rangers afford to wait and risk him not living up to his full potential?
Trading Kakko now would force other teams to take that gamble. With a roster with holes and highly-skilled players at every position, moving him in a package for an established forward could open up the Rangers win-now window. Attaching his name to a package could allow the Rangers to poke and pry at players who may not be mere rentals.
But all of this hinges upon Drury and how much he values and believes in Kakko. It wouldn’t be a fair shake moving on from him this quickly, but most teams don’t have the pieces around a top-pick that the Rangers do. His value may never get higher. Or he may turn into the forward that was promised when he was selected.
It is not an easy decision to make, but for the Rangers, weighing the pros and cons of dealing Kakko is something that has to be done. If the current trend in play continues, I for one would not be surprised to hear his name floating around at the deadline.
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Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!