What to expect from Kaapo Kakko for the remainder of the season

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers /
New York Rangers Right Wing Kaapo Kakko (24)
New York Rangers Right Wing Kaapo Kakko (24) /

As the New York Rangers pass the halfway mark of the season, Kaapo Kakko has tallied 16 points. With the 18-year-old winger beginning to find his footing during his rookie campaign, we analyze his point projections for the rest of the season.

About six months ago, hundreds of New York Rangers fans seated in the lower bowl of Madison Square Garden watched Kaapo Kakko put on a Rangers jersey for the first time at the 2019 draft party, but the loudest roars from those in attendance came one pick before — when the New Jersey Devils picked Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, indicating the Blueshirts would select the Finnish native.

The Garden faithful were set on which prospect they wanted — it was Kakko.

As soon as Kakko’s name was on the team’s roster, even before his remarkable World Juniors showing, it seemed that unrealistic expectations were synonymous with his name.

Kakko’s physical frame, much larger than many of his draft counterparts, contributed to these expectations, but the onset of the regular season would help bring many of these beliefs hurdling down to earth.

What many did not take into account was the extensive learning curve that 18-year-olds undergo during a transition to the NHL, especially when that 18-year-old hails from a country that barely exceeds the population of Harlem.

Kakko didn’t exactly stumble out of the gate, but he seemed to struggle more than even he expected.

Kakko’s underlying statistics early in the season showed underwhelming performances where he did not significantly possess the puck, drive offense or defend particularly well; however, these are ultimately normal games for a player his age.

There were flashes of brilliance. Kakko had a solid November, registering eight points — four of which were goals — in a 13-game span.

But, after a sickness derailed his hot streak, Kakko briefly lost his footing again.

His dip in performance, though, indicated by his GameScore via HockeyStatCards.com, would begin to trend upwards in mid-December.

He capped off his recent streak with perhaps his best game of the season against the Calgary Flames where he tallied a goal and assist in the 4-3 loss.

And that’s where Kakko stands at this stage of the season — 16 points in 38 games.

While a far-cry from fans who wanted to see an immediate dominance from the Finnish winger, it is a first-half rookie players of superb caliber have seen before.

Aleksander Barkov, a second-overall pick in 2013, scored 24 points in his first 54 games as an 18-year-old. He followed up that season with a 36 point affair in 71 games — hardly evident of the dangerous player we know today.

More recently, 2018 second-overall pick Andrei Svechinkov scored 20 goals and 17 assists for 37 points in his first full season — a .45 point-per-game pace, nearly identical to Kakko’s current pace, despite his early-season-woes.

Kakko’s early point totals shouldn’t raise many red flags, just as they shouldn’t signal the Finn will become undeniably elite.

More importantly, his underlying numbers are improving, which could lead to increased production.

In instances where Kakko’s underlying numbers improved, a direct correlation to point production is apparent.

When his GameScore improved in mid-November, Kakko had four points in two games. In early December, once again during an influx of his underlying statistics, Kakko netted assists in back-to-back games.

Some underlying stats, though, do not always tell the full story. Shayna Goldman of the Athletic (subscription required), who analyzed the team’s trends, noted that Kakko’s Game Score Value Added (GSVA) has steadily dipped from his preseason projections.

A part of Kakko’s consistency and production, however, rests in his deployment. It is a critical element of the production equation that Head Coach David Quinn will have to solve sooner than later.

It is also an element that has drawn the ire of fans critical of Quinn’s rationale for deciding when — and when not — to play Kakko. This was evident as recently as the aforementioned game against the Calgary Flames, when Kakko found himself riding the bench after a holding penalty 12 minutes into the third period, regardless of his solid performance through 50 minutes.

And this deployment carries over to the powerplay, where Kakko has seen limited first-unit time, despite leading the team in primary assists on the man-advantage.

The player often in his place, Pavel Buchnevich, by comparison, has five powerplay points (one goal and four assists) — half the points Kakko has in 5-on-4 situations thus far.

If Kakko continues to be sternly punished for his mistakes, which are bound to happen in a rookie season, his productivity will be undoubtedly impacted.

However, as long as he can stay healthy, and begins to gain the trust of his coach, Kakko could hit the 40-point-plateau — a feat that is nothing to sneeze at for an 18-year-old who turns 19 in Feb.

Reaching that total would have put him fourth on last year’s team in points.

Kakko’s confidence is something that could change these projections in either direction. If he heats up, as he did in November, 40 points could be an easily-attainable possibility.

He has shown a proclivity for taking more offensive chances when his confidence is high, like the recent bout against the Flames. If he can find a way to make that type of impact consistent during the second half of the 2019-2020 season, he will progressively become a dominant player.

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