Kaapo Kakko 3

Can Kakko Continue

Going into this season, Chris Drury took a bit of a gamble.  With Kaapo KakkoAlexis Lafreniere and Vitali Kravtsov all looking to make progression in their young careers, he had to find room on the roster to give them a chance at meaningful minutes.  Ultimately he decided to deal RFA Pavel Buchnevich – who also was due a hefty raise, to the St Louis Blues in exchange for a 2nd round pick and forward Sammy Blais.

The move was controversial at the time, but it did open up a coveted spot in the top six for one of the young guys to step into, and the prime candidate was Kakko, now in his third year in the NHL at just 20 years old.

As it turned out, it might have been a bit early.  While Kakko’s defensive play had improved from his rookie season, he still was having difficulty figuring out the offensive side.  He went the first ten games of the season without scoring a point, in addition to missng four games with an upper body injury.

Then came a seven game stretch in November where he seemed to find his touch, recording 3 goals and 5 assists, with points in all but one game.  It looked like he was starting to find his way, but once again faltered.  After playing mostly with Strome and Panarin, Gallant decided to move him to the Zibanejad line.  The move was perhaps in part to try and get Zibanejad going, but it also had the effect of drying up Kakko’s offense once more.  In the next twenty games, Kakko managed just 2 goals and 4 assists, with both goals coming in a December 15th 3-2 win over Arizona.

Then came the admission that he’d been playing with an injury.  Although not widely reported, Kakko had surgery on his wrist, and spent the better part of the next three months working his way back.

That finally happened on April 9th, when he finally made a return to the ice, paired up with Alexis Lafreniere and Barclay Goodrow, his positions on the top two lines having been filled by deadline acquistions of Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp.

It was a quiet return for the now 21 year old Finn, in which he didn’t register a shot and was on the ice for the only goal against in a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators that also clinched the Rangers first playoff appearance since 2017.

He followed that up with another quiet game in the 4-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.  The third line in that game had little impact on the outcome either way, with Kakko again registering no shots on goal.

And then we have last night in Philafelphia.

With the Rangers opening up slowly, the third line – now with Filip Chytil in the center, and Goodrow shifting over to replace Lafreniere – was one of the few lines to be generating any sort of offensive pressure, and it would be that line that finally got the Rangers on the board midway through the first.

Kakko found himself unmarked in the slot, only to see his shot ring off the crossbar.  Undeterred the line regrouped and set him up again in almot the same position.  With his first sighter under the belt, Kakko made no mistake ont he second attempt, beating rookie netminder Felix Sandstrom up high.

It wasn’t so much the goal itself, as much as it demonstrated a confidence that hasn’t always been apparent in his game.

His second goal of the night, and second for the Rangers came in the second period, this time a net front direction off of a very nice pass through the defense by Chytil.  Kakko was again unmarked, and slotted the puck home and for the first time in a long time, we saw him smile.

As much as it might have been a relief for Kakko, it was also a relief for the fans who were watching, hoping that he’d finally start to show some of the talent that warranted his second overall pick status.  With #1 overall pick Jack Hughes having found his game across the Hudson, the pressure was certainly building for Kakko to start doing hte same….injury not withstanding.

The two goals, and a third shot that Sandstrom fought off later in the second, capped a pretty good outing for Kakko, and relieved a bit of the pressure.  They were his first shots on goal since returning, and resulted in his first goals in almost four months dating back to December 15th.

One game doesn’t make a difference for sure, and all seven of his goals this season have come against teams that for the most part were never in the playoff picture – two each against the Flyers and Coyotes, and the other three coming against New Jersey, Montreal and Buffalo.

But there’s hope.  Just like we saw in November, when Kakko starts playing with confidence, he plays with more assertiveness and is able to generate chances.  Even at 21, he has a size and strength that makes it difficult for opponents to move him off the puck, and even while his skating is probably closer to average than the best in the league, he finds ways to get in scoring position.

Hopefully he can generate a few more chances in these last seven games, and go into his first playoffs with a bit of confidence, providing the Rangers with another offensive option at a time of year when depth scoring can be vital.  Hopefully he can relax a little, and enjoy this time with less pressure playing on a third line with fewer expectations.

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