With the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, the New York Rangers selected a young Finnish winger by the name of Kaapo Kakko. Most people in hockey saw Kakko as a future star who could easily be the best player in the draft. When the Rangers selected him second overall, there were high expectations and many thought he would make an immediate impact. When his rookie season came around, he was awful. People were worried that he wouldn’t be able to succeed at the NHL level. Despite a marginally better second year, Kakko still hasn’t put up points the same way he used to. So, what’s been holding Kakko back? And can he succeed in the NHL?
Kaapo Kakko is a scoring winger with a great shot and amazing hockey sense. Kakko’s success comes from his ability to slice through multiple defenders and snipe it past the goalie. He relies on lightning-quick hands and an outstanding wrist shot to put his name on the scoreboard. Kakko’s good skating ability combined with balance and strength allow him to put himself into positions to score. He has an incredible hockey IQ and knows where to be at all times, both on offense and defense. He showed these attributes throughout his junior career, most notably in the 2019 IIHF World Juniors, where he carried Finland to a gold medal. Kakko also demonstrates upstanding character, as well as a desire to win and to improve his game. Kaapo has all the tools he needs in order to succeed–so where’s the disconnect then?
Stat-wise, Kakko has been brutal, especially in his rookie year. In that year, he had 23 points in 66 games. Clearly, he wasn’t the offensive phenom this team had expected. Defensively it only got worse. His plus-minus was -26, his xGA was 38.2, and his DPS was -0.1. He was one of the worst players in the league that year, and he took it personally. In the offseason, Kakko spent a lot of time working on his strength and skating.
That hard work showed. This past year, he had similar offensive stats in almost 20 fewer games (17 pts in 48). His defense improved the most of all, as he had a positive +/-, his xGA was 8.2, and just about every other defensive stat was better than his first year. He also looked way more comfortable in the game. Kakko seemed to want the puck more, and he was putting himself in places to score more often. He started to look like the Kakko of old, but one thing was still missing: points.
Kakko’s Scoring Woes
Kakko has had trouble scoring for the entirety of his NHL career. In his rookie year, it was easy to see why. He had struggled in just about every way, and offensively it was no different. Despite a huge leap in his second year, he still struggled to find the back of the net. The question is, why can’t he get on the scoreboard?
Kakko’s inability to adapt to the NHL hurt him in his first year. In Juniors, he could cut through two guys and score quickly. Now, with less space and time, it had become difficult for him. He struggled heavily in his rookie year because he played stubbornly. In the offseason, he realized what he needed to do to succeed and worked on adapting. It showed in year two. However, he still had a little bit of trouble. It’s gonna take time for Kakko to get to his full potential, so his development shouldn’t be rushed.
As well as his own struggles, there have been outside factors that have hurt him too. David Quinn’s coaching and lines didn’t do Kakko any favors, as he had the same ATOI as Colin Blackwell. He also wasn’t on the same line consistently which hurt his game. Lastly, COVID-19 played a big part in his struggles, as it did for Mika Zibanejad. It took some time for both players to get back to full strength after contracting the virus.
Can Kakko Solve This Problem?
In my opinion, the answer is yes. Kakko is still developing as a player and has plenty of room to grow. He has demonstrated in this past year that he can play at a high level and he’s only going to get better. Kaapo has started to adapt to the NHL and it showed in his play. Kakko is an incredibly bright player with a ton of character who always wants to get better, and he showed that last offseason.
He also turned 20 recently, so there’s no reason to rush his development either. The Rangers have a young and inexperienced team and will take some time for their core to reach their full potential. When that happens, they’ll be a well-oiled machine, with Kakko playing a huge role. Watch out for him to take a big step in the next season or two.