Kaapo Kakko: What to expect in his second NHL season

Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Despite a lackluster rookie season with the New York Rangers, the sky is still the limit for Kaapo Kakko.

When the New York Rangers drafted Kaapo Kakko second overall in the 2019 NHL draft, many fans, including myself, had anticipated an immediate impact from the young stud, and for good reason.

Kakko broke Aleksander Barkov‘s goals record for a U-18 player in Finland’s top professional league, Liiga, scoring 22 goals for TPS Turku. The young stud capped off his extremely impressive draft year by scoring the game winning goal against Team USA in the 2019 World Junior Championships finale, earning his Team Finland the gold medal. This made him the youngest player in the history of the game to win gold at all three IIHF world tournaments; U-18 WJC, U-20 WJC, and the World Championships.

Unfortunately, he was unable to follow up such an impressive draft year with an equally impressive rookie year in the NHL. With just 10 goals and 23 points through 66 games, including a 19 game goal drought, there certainly became reason to worry. It doesn’t help that he also had a plus/minus rating of -26. While plus/minus can be a controversial statistic in hockey, being -26 is no coincidence and certainly needs to be addressed.

Talking to the media after a morning skate in February, Rangers coach David Quinn had this to say about the Finnish youngster:

“He definitely looks more confident with the puck, for sure,’’ Quinn had said. “There’s definitely more swagger to him without the puck — I’m underlining ‘without the puck.’ As most 18-year-olds need to continue to learn, this game, especially here, is a lot different than over in Europe.’’

Coach Quinn also made it his mission to emphasize time and time again how difficult it is for an 18-year-old to move across the Atlantic Ocean without knowing much English, not to mention living with a billet family. Now couple all of that with taking on the bright lights and pressure of playing as a second overall pick at Madison Square Garden for an Original Six franchise. Sounds pretty difficult if you ask me.

As fans of the sport, we often times have tunnel vision and don’t realize all that goes into a player’s development and success, and Quinn was keen on making sure that was understood by the media and the fans, both of whom can be quite impatient in New York.

Being back for the summer training camp, it is apparent from the video above how much Kakko had improved his English. He has clearly come a long, long way from “wow, it’s a nice city.” His newfound English skills must be a shot in the arm of self-confidence for the kid, and will only help him communicate better with both his teammates and his coaches.

Based on my own observation, the rookie was far and away one of the best players for the Rangers during their three game embarrassment against Carolina during the NHL’s play-in round of the playoffs. This came after quite an impressive training camp, where Quinn made note of how the break certainly helped him recharge his batteries, both physically and mentally.

Quinn’s words did not ring hollow, as the winger averaged 15:52 of time on ice (TOI) during the three game playoff stint, compared to his regular season average TOI of 14:17. A small sample size, yes, but a notable difference indeed.

Despite the team’s quick playoff exit, Kakko managed to earn something of great magnitude: the confidence of not only his coaches, but of the New York Rangers fanbase. Rather than being worried about the Finn’s progression moving forward, Rangers fans should only be eager and excited to see him take the next step in his game, as he showed us that it is certainly there.

According to the head coach, he seemed like a different person both on and off the ice. I expect this “different” Kakko to be the one who shows up to training camp on November 1st. If so, he will certainly have a much better sophomore season than that of the rookie year Kakko.

Unless something drastic happens, Alexis Lafrenière is all but certain to be the Rangers first selection of the NHL Entry Draft on October 9th. It cannot be understated the amount of pressure this should take off of the 19-year-old right wing, not to mention the added talent he will get to play with and learn from as well.

Given Finland’s excellent response to COVID-19, Kakko should be able to pick back up right where he left off during the NHL’s pause, skating and training on a daily basis.

Most importantly, the quiet teen seems to finally be acclimating to life in New York and being away from his native Finland. He should also be quite used to the North American style of hockey and the smaller rink by now, which will help him get off to a better start next year. Don’t forget, he doesn’t turn 20 years old until next February.

I believe 20 goals and 50 points is a reasonable expectation for Kakko next season, assuming the league is able to make an 82 game season a reality. However, while points are great, they do not tell the whole story. I will be much more focused on his game as a whole, rather than judging him by the amount of goals he scores.

Stronger, confident, more decisive, and better away from the puck on both ends of the rink; that is how I would describe the Kaapo Kakko I am hoping and expecting to see next season. It is not too farfetched given what we saw from him at July’s camp and during the three games against Carolina, or as Coach Quinn so fittingly put it to the media at camp, “the start of his second season.”