Explore New York Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko’s evolution from a defensive force to an offensive sensation in the NHL. Uncover the factors behind his potential breakout season and the thrilling future he holds in the league.
As hockey fans, even we can take two-way stars for granted. It’s why when Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins retired this offseason, many advocated for a prestigious award named after him.
Yep, the Selke Trophy, which he won a record six times, including the last two. No, Kaapo Kakko won’t reach that stature. However, who’s to say he can’t win one down the road?
Remember when the Rangers drafted this Finnish dynamo second overall in 2019? Defensive forward probably wasn’t the first thing that crossed anyone’s mind. After his first season, you could even argue that his defense was his weakness.
From Defensive Prowess to Offensive Firepower: Kakko’s Rise:
However, as we enter the 2023-24 season, Kakko is regarded as a player who deserves to be in the top six for his two-way play. Don’t just take my word for it. Check the stats! No, this distinction didn’t come easy. It took a plethora of bottom-six minutes and some hard work.
According to Forever Blueshirts, Kakko’s expected goals against Per 60 last season ranked 27th among forwards with at least 1,000 minutes on the ice. That’s in the same ballpark as top-notch defensive forwards like Mitch Marner and Nico Hischier, and he’s even ahead of the likes of veterans such as Phillip Danault and Jordan Martinook.
“The thing I’m noticing more and more with Kakko is, they’re starting to give him more responsibility in defensive situations,” Rangers beat reporter Vince Mercogliano said.“He’s been grading out as one of the Rangers’ better defensive forwards lately.”
Furthermore, Evolving Hockey says Kakko ended last season in the 72nd percentile for defense among forwards. That’s good for third on the Rangers’ defense leaderboard, behind Chris Kreider and Jimmy Vesey.
So, here’s the question – when the Rangers need a line with close out line late in games, how about giving Kakko a shot? Coach Peter Laviolette’s thinking about it.
“They’ve had Kakko in that spot,” Mercogliano quipped. “He has the speed and the size and the creativity to hang on to pucks and to try and find something and make something happen offensively when it’s not crystal clear,” Laviolette said. “The crystal-clear plays, those are the easy ones to see and make. But when you don’t have those crystal-clear plays – when you have a player that has the ability to create – that can become a really dangerous player.”
That said, Kakko’s offensive game is like a mystery power play that never converts. Among the 2019 draft class, where he was the second pick right after Jack Hughes, Kakko is sixth in goals (44), seventh in assists (54), and fifth in points (98). Sure, he’s played more games (239) than most, but those numbers still don’t scream “top pick.”
However, Laviolette is trying Kakko in front of the net for the powerplay in practice.
With his big 6-2, 205 IBs, frame and learning from Chris Kreider, one of the best in the league at deflections, Kakko may unlock another weapon in his offensive arsenal.
“The stars seem to be aligning for a breakout season. NHL Network Analyst, former Blueshirt, and 2003 Stanley Cup Champion Mike Rupp said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s pushing high 20s, possibly 30 goals this year. It’s his time to shine now.”
As a unit, the Rangers have a shot to turn heads this season, especially with 22 year-old stepping up. And speaking of Kakko, he’s ready to roll. After scoring a preseason goal in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the New York Islanders, he said, “Anytime you score a goal, it feels good.”
Truthfully, we’re tired of waiting as fans. It’s time for players like Kakko to light up the ice. Training camp’s great, but we’ll see what happens when the regular season starts on October 12th in Buffalo. That’s what matters.