Even before he left the Chicago Blackhawks, everyone thought the New York Rangers would be a good trade destination for Patrick Kane. We wrote about it not once, but twice, over the course of the year. Kane and fellow trade acquisition, Vladimir Tarasenko from the St. Louis Blues, both filled rather large and gaping holes at right wing in the Ranger’s top six forward group.
Now both are gone. Tarasenko signed a one year pact with the Ottawa Senators and Kane remains a free agent and most likely won’t sign until later in the season after he recovers fully from offseason surgery. Thus, those two right wing spots have opened again.
Last season ended with Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane as the New York Rangers top two right wings. Who takes those places now?
One is expected to be filled by former number two overall pick Kaapo Kakko. Kakko put up a respectable 40 points last season, a career high in the first time he’s ever played a full 82 games. Still a lot more was expected from the player who played “so well against men” that let Rangers fans to cheer as the New Jersey Devils chose Jack Hughes over him in 2019.
That second right wing spot is expected to go to free agent signee Blake Wheeler. Blake Wheeler might even be more guaranteed to have a top six right wing role than Kakko. New York once again looked for an aged castoff from another team to fill out their top six.
Wheeler had a better season than New York’s two temporary right wing mercenaries last year. Wheeler had 55 points in 72 games, good enough for 0.76 points per game. Tarasenko has 50 points in 69 games between the Rangers and Blues, good enough for 0.72 points per game. Kane had 36 points in 73 games between Chicago and New York, good enough for 0.49 points per game.
That’s not really a fair assessment of Kane for two reasons. First, the lion’s share of his season was spent on a terrible Chicago team, and second, he played through last year with a significant injury. Ranger’s fans would like to remember Kane for his six points in seven playoff games. That’s the type of performance Rangers fans expected from the NHL’s highest scoring American.
Some Rangers fans are still hoping for a midseason reunion between Kane and the Blueshirts. Kane never really found comfort with the Rangers, so we’ll assume him returning to Madison Square Garden is not in the cards. You would think that assures Wheeler the top right wing spot, on a line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. However Daily Faceoff projects Kaapo to win top line honors, dropping Wheeler down to play with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trochek. That is in line with comments new Rangers head coach Peter Lavoilette had made:
"“My discussion with Blake Wheeler was I asked him, ‘Do you think you could be first-line right wing? Do you think you can be second-line right wing?’ ” Laviolette said. “That’s his opportunity, come in and push. I think that’s what he was looking for too.”"
Daily Faceoff also pencils Wheeler into the top power play unit. Last season Wheeler had 15 points on the man advantage, tied for his lowest since the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season. New York’s power play might boost Wheeler and not the other way around, considering this was the seventh ranked power play in the league last year.
To keep the Kakko and Wheeler comparison going, we looked his numbers last season as well. Kakko had three points on the man advantage, a far departure from the 13 he had in his rookie season. Daily Faceoff projects he will be on New York’s second power play unit.
With all of that considered it’s still surprising to see Kakko over Wheeler on the right wing depth chart. Maybe his youth is the thing that bumped him up to the projected top spot? This would be one of New York’s biggest votes of confidence in Kakko to date, even if it’s born out of necessity.
Kakko spent the majority of last year on the third line, affectionately called the “kid” line, with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil. Kakko averaged 15:18 of ice time last season, just above his career average of 14:51. Wheeler averaged almost two minute more per game at 17:03 per night.
Anything can change once training camp rolls around. Maybe New York is pushing Kakko to be the player they thought they were getting a second overall with this defacto first line promotion. Wheeler is the low cost insurance option behind him.