Everything is in place for the real Kaapo Kakko to step forward in 2020-21.
As was the case for New Jersey Devils forward Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, it was a disappointing and underwhelming rookie year for Kaapo Kakko, who went to the New York Rangers with the second overall selection.
Like Hughes, Kakko came into the league with lofty expectations and, like Hughes, the right wing was perhaps unfairly judged and unfairly evaluated at certain points during the course of the 2019-20 season.
Kakko actually had a better season stastically than Hughes, recording 23 points (10 G, 13 A) in 66 regular season games with 13 points on the power play.
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Granted, he did finish the regular season with a plus / minus rating of -26 – the same as Hughes funnily enough – and he went 19 games without recording a single point with a lack of consistency a huge bugaboo of Kakko’s rookie year.
However, there’s a key caveat at play here and that’s the fact that Kakko was not only 19 playing in a gruelling and physical league, but he was also a teenager having to adapt to a new country and a new style of hockey all on his own.
Plus, we all know that New York is hardly the most forgiving of places and it can chew you up and spit you out if you let it, so Kakko had to deal with all of that too while trying to get used to playing hockey in North America under the bright lights.
So, it was only natural that Kakko was going to experience some growing pains and endure some rough spells in his first year in the National Hockey League, and we shouldn’t count that as a blemish on his resume or hold it up as a mark against his potential.
Context is important when dissecting anything and you need to look at all angles when evaluating Kakko’s rookie year, not just look at it through a prism.
His English also wasn’t great so that wouldn’t have helped the transitional period, while playing for a storied and Original Six franchise brings its own pressures too, especially in a hotbed market such as New York.
But, despite all of that, Kakko displayed flashes of brilliance and he actually got better as the year went on, culminating in an impressive showing inside The Bubble in Toronto where he was arguably one of the standout players for the Rangers in a disappointing sweep to the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-five Play-In Round.
Averaging 15:53 minutes of ATOI, which was more than the 14:17 he averaged during the regular season, Kakko clearly earned the trust of the coaching staff and he played in key situations for the New York Rangers.
He finished without a point but he played a more mature game, he looked more confident with the puck on his stick and he also played a real clever game without the puck, which is just as important.
Kakko also battled hard and he played with a certain swagger, which is only a good sign going forward for Blueshirts fans.
And there are a plethora of pointers out there that suggest we will see the real Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers in 2020-21.
For starters, his English appeared much better in a recent interview that appeared on the Rangers’ official website, and he should also be much better for having spent a year in New York and all that comes with living in The Big Apple.
Kakko has had a year to get used to playing the North American style of hockey and, as we saw during a small sample size in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he appeared much more comfortable and that should now translate to the 2020-21 season.
Having earned the trust of Head Coach David Quinn during the postseason, it is also feasible to project that Kakko will be given the opportunity to cement his place on one of the top two lines, with the left shot stuck on the third line far too often in 2019-20.
If Kakko can establish himself as a top-six forward this year, then he will have the luxury of playing with the likes of Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on a nightly basis, which should only help to elevate his game and unlock his true talents.
Plus, in the wake of the Rangers selecting generational talent Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, some of the pressure should be off Kakko heading into 2020-21, which should allow him to focus on his natural game and it will also give him another weapon to play with.
Quinn and his coaching staff certainly feel like they are dealing with a different Kaapo Kakko now and if that version can report to Training Camp, then expect the prospect to at least start the season in the top six and earn some significant power play time.
It is obvious that the talent is there and the ceiling is sky-high and, after going through some key learning curves, the ingredients are there for Kaapo Kakko to elevate his game and show the NHL what he’s really all about in 2020-21.
If he can succeed in that mission then expect the New York Rangers to be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference this coming season.