The Rangers began their preseason with a very disappointing game against the Islanders, a 4-0 loss reminiscent of their defeat in the first game of the season last year. Their following game against the Bruins showed a completely different side of the team, especially the Rangers’ first line which excelled against a JV Bruins squad. On that front line, 20-year-old winger Kaapo Kakko showed his true colors and progress from last year’s campaign. The 2nd overall pick in the 2019 draft recorded 1 goal and 1 assist in the second period, playing to the right of Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin.
As the regular season approaches, the expectations for Kakko to perform offensively continue to increase. As a highly-touted prospect heading into the 2019-2020 season, Kakko was expected to be a frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. As an 18-year-old in 2019, the Turku native put up a staggering 22 goals in only 45 games for TPS in Liiga—Finland’s professional hockey league. The right-winger also surpassed NHL superstars such as Sebastian Aho, Alexander Barkov, and Mikko Rantanen in goals per game in Liiga. On top of an already impressive resume, Kakko also added a World Junior Championship victory to his long list of achievements. Unlike first overall pick Jack Hughes, scouts unanimously agreed that Kakko’s size and strength would make transitioning to the NHL level relatively smooth. However, that was not the case for the potential superstar. In his first year, Kakko put up an underwhelming 23 points (10 goals and 13 assists) in 66 games. Despite falling short in his first regular-season, Kakko sought to finally break out with a strong performance in the 2020-2021 season. However, things didn’t exactly go as planned for the young Fin. Kakko would only record 2 goals in the month of January and would later contract COVID-19, which really slowed down the right winger’s sophomore season, ending the year with only 17 points (9 goals and 8 assists) in 48 games, a minuscule improvement in points per game from the 2019-2020 season. Despite minimal progression in Kakko’s offensive game, the Finish winger took his defensive game to the next level, establishing himself as one of the Rangers’ top defensive forwards.
So it begs the question, what is different this year? What has Kakko done this offseason to prepare for his third season? Spending a majority of his time in Finland, Kakko really tried to focus on the weaknesses in his game, one of which being his strength. Working with trainer Marko Rautala and fellow NHL player Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, Kakko focused on improving his frame in the hopes of adding a little bit of grit to his game. Aside from improvements Kakko has made in the gym, he also made major strides on the ice, focusing on his speed and endurance, something Rangers’ fans can agree was lacking from the 6’3” forward.
So, what should we expect from Kakko this season? And how will his placement in the lineup be different? Well, if his performance in his only preseason game is suggestive of anything, it is that Kakko will be a dominant force on an improving Rangers squad. In no way am I jumping the gun on Kakko’s performance this season, I just think that the stars have finally lined up for Kakko to truly break out. For one, the Rangers have brought in a new coach who, throughout his entire coaching career, has emphasized keeping high draft pick prospects in the top 6. In contrast, former head coach David Quinn consistently played Kakko on the third line and rarely gave him the chance to move up the lineup. For another, assuming Kakko maintains a level of play that warrants top 6 minutes, he should be consistently playing with highly-skilled, experienced NHL players. In the 2020-2021 season, Kakko had to find his way playing with two other youngsters in Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil, both of whom were also still trying to find their groove. This line proved to be extremely ineffective because it lacked a veteran presence to guide the young guys. I don’t see this being a problem for Kakko this season because he will most likely be given the opportunity to play alongside some established, veteran names, whether that be Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, or Mika Zibanejad.
As far as point totals are concerned, I’d say Rangers’ fans should expect a significant improvement in Kakko’s production in both goals and assists. If I had to put a number on it, I’d expect Kakko to put up a respectable 45-50 points. I know following the draft many Rangers’ fans were anticipating a much more significant impact from Kakko, but since his first season he has continued to make steady improvement, and I have no doubt he will eventually live up to the hype.