Why Kaapo Kakko will finally break out in 2021-2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 08: Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers takes the shot in warm-ups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on April 08, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 08: Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers takes the shot in warm-ups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on April 08, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

In the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers struck gold by being awarded the second overall pick. The Rangers used that pick to draft Finnish phenom, Kaapo Kakko. Heading into his rookie year, the 18-year-old Kakko was expected to be a Calder Trophy candidate while adjusting to the North American game. Talk about lofty expectations.

Kaapo Kakko’s rookie season wasn’t bad by any means but he didn’t perform up to the expectations that come with being picked second overall. In 66 games played, he scored 10 goals and 13 assists, good for 23 points on the season.

On paper, these numbers look severely disappointing but many believe former Rangers Head Coach David Quinn, misused his young talent by depriving them of ice time. Kakko only averaged 14:17 minutes of ice time during the 2019-2020 season.  Of the forwards picked second overall in the six Entry Drafts before Kakko, only Nolan Patrick averaged less ice time in his rookie season with most playing many more minutes per game.   It could be one of the reasons Quinn is without a job right now.

Kaapo Kakko showed tons of promise during his second NHL season and he will look to make a bigger jump into stardom. Even with David Quinn giving top six minutes to guys like  Colin Blackwell instead of Kakko and his teammate Alexis Lafrenière, the Finn took major strides defensively with his plus-minus rating going from -26 to a +3. That is a huge jump for a player that just turned 20.

Even though points-wise, he stayed relatively the same, with 9 goals and 8 assists for 17 points in 48 games played, how can you expect a player to produce when he’s barely out there on the ice? How can Kaapo Kakko take that next step when he’s playing alongside Brett Howden instead of Artemi Panarin?

Ranger fans should expect things to be different this year. With former Jack Adams Award winner in Gerard Gallant now behind the bench for the Blueshirts, the young talent in New York will finally grow and thrive. Especially the Finnish kid taken second overall.

Gallant’s commitment to developing young players

The main difference between Gerard Gallant and David Quinn is one has a clear goal in mind to win now and in the future and the other has no plan or clue what tomorrow will bring. Gerard Gallant has stated publicly that he vows to help the Rangers’ young players to step up in 2021-2022.

Gallant said on NHL Network in July “Each player has to have roles on the team, some of those fourth line guys might not score 15 goals for you, but they have an important role to play, they are banging bodies and working hard…..hopefully, the young players, the high draft picks like Lafrenière and Kakko, they are going to be up higher in the lineup.”

Based on that quote alone, Gallant has shown that he wants to see younger players get involved instead of riding the bench in critical moments. During the preseason, he is experimenting with his line combinations and his special team units. On Saturday against the Bruins, Kakko saw 1:38 of penalty killing time and had a shorthanded breakaway. The Rangers should be very grateful they have Gallant as their head coach.

Playing with better players equal better production

The best thing for an up-and-coming player is to play alongside someone who has been producing at the professional level for a long time. David Quinn missed a huge opportunity by putting Colin Blackwell with Panarin and Strome instead of Kakko. And for the few times that the stubborn Quinn did put Kakko on the Panarin-Strome line, he played some of his best hockey last year.

It’s no coincidence that Kaapo Kakko played well when he played with guys that could help him get to that next level. Look at what happened when Ryan Strome joined Panarin. Strome’s career was in jeopardy before playing with Panarin by his side.

In 2018-19 he only had 33 points in 81 games played. In 2019-2020, Panarin’s first year in New York, Strome recorded 59 points in 71 games. Putting talented players with your superstars propels them to the next level. If the Rangers want to see Kaapo Kakko thrive, they need to put him with their superstar.

The Verdict

If the New York Rangers play their cards right, they have something very special on their hands. If they put their talent in the best position possible, a Stanley Cup will certainly be in their future. But only if they do the right by their talent.