By show of hands, how many of you thought Kaapo Kakko had a good first year? The highly rated Finnish right wing was a disappointment for the Rangers, who were only too happy to grab the future scorer second at last year’s NHL Draft.
In truth, we were all excited about landing Kakko even though the Devils took Jack Hughes first after once again having some lottery luck on their side. We dreamed of the bigger Kakko lighting up Broadway in his rookie season. It didn’t happen. In fact, both top ranked prospects hardly lived up to lofty expectations in Year One.
Hughes wound up with 21 points (7-14-21) and a minus-26 rating over 61 games in Newark while Kakko had 10 goals with 13 assists for 23 points and the identical minus-26 rating over 66 contests. There really was no difference for either kid in their age 18 season. Both missed some games due to injuries. Neither dominated at five-on-five like many expected.
Not every top pick comes in and takes the league by storm. For every Lemieux, Lindros, Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin and Kane, there is a Stamkos, MacKinnon and Barkov who takes more time to become the star players they were hyped up to be. There also are occasional busts such as Alexandre Daigle, who bought into his hype and was more about the night life off the ice.
Given how grounded Hughes and Kakko are, I don’t see that happening. They’ll be fine. However, let’s quickly evaluate them for a minute. Hughes is the faster skater with superb vision who’ll be successful due to his unique blend of skills. The defensive side will take time. Kakko is the more physical player who can use his size and strength to ward off defenders to get off his powerful shot. But he isn’t defensively aware and needs work with his skating.
So, both are not finished products. That’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each are part of rebuilding teams with an eye towards the future. For Kakko, the Blueshirts are ahead of the Devils due to the star talent of Artemi Panarin and emergence of Mika Zibanejad. They boast Chris Kreider and budding defensemen Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Lindgren.
Filip Chytil is part of that youth with Kakko the team believes in. Igor Shesterkin has the potential to compete for a Vezina. That’s why they had enough success to be part of the expanded format. Even if their stay was brief, the emptiness should be a motivator for next season.
The Devils are further away. They already revealed Nico Hischier as their new captain to replace former veteran defenseman Andy Greene, who the Isles rented. Their core isn’t as good, but has hard nosed North American finishers like Kyle Palmieri, who GM Tom Fitzgerald will have to make a decision on next year.
Pavel Zacha hasn’t yet fulfilled expectations even though he’s a dependable penalty killer. He should be better for where they took him. The defense depends on Will Butcher, Damon Severson and PK Subban, who has a immovable contract. Mackenzie Blackwood may or may not be a quality number one goalie. Cory Schneider is still there to form a tandem. Might they be intrigued by top Russian goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov with the number eight pick if Buffalo doesn’t grab him?
Fitzgerald did well in getting a nice return for former Hart winner Taylor Hall by landing big D prospect Kevin Bahl in a trade that netted an Arizona first round pick (top 3 protected) and a conditional third in 2021. Hall has performed well for the Coyotes, who are up 2-1 on the Predators. If they advance, the Devils are guaranteed that first round pick. They also got a good package for Blake Coleman with Tampa parting with Nolan Foote and the rights to Vancouver’s first pick.
While it’s more about the future in Newark, the Rangers are more focused on the present. When you give Panarin $11.6 million and commit a lot of money on Jacob Trouba, you’re not doing it for nothing. They want to compete. Zibanejad is due for a raise. He’s proven himself as a number one center following a career season. The $5.35 million cap hit is a bargain for a complete player, who can play five-on-five, power play and penalty kill where he’s dangerous shorthanded.
Next summer, GM Jeff Gorton should begin negotiating a new contract that keeps the 27-year old in Manhattan long-term. Especially with Marc Staal, Brendan Smith and Henrik Lundqvist coming off the books.
Who knows. Lundqvist could decide to do the Rangers a favor and retire to return home to play with twin brother Joel Lundqvist for Frolunda. Something that’s been rumored in Sweden. If he did, the Rangers would be totally free from the $8.5 million cap hit that runs through 2021. I’m sure Henrik would love to stay and prove he still has something left. Even if it’s not in New York. He wants to win. Why not? He’s 38 and needs a Stanley Cup to legitimize his Hall of Fame career. Yes, he will make it regardless. But without a Cup, some goalies like Curtis Joseph have had to wait longer. Cujo still isn’t in. Roberto Luongo had a similar career to Lundqvist. Will the recently retired former Panther and Canucks star have to wait?
Getting back to the main point of this piece, I don’t feel David Quinn put Kakko in a good position to succeed. Part of that was that he wasn’t as good as advertised. There were times where the Finn looked lost. He isn’t the best skater and is a defensive liability at this point. It takes time for most young players to learn that key part of the game.
As much as he struggled, Kakko showed improvement in the three games versus the Hurricanes. He was stronger and faster, generating chances in the Qualifying Series. Even if it didn’t translate on the score sheet, that’s a positive development. After Jesper Fast went down 61 seconds into play on the Brady Skjei hit that set the tone, Quinn didn’t hesitate to bump up Kakko to the top six. He played mostly on the second line with Panarin and Ryan Strome before the Rangers coach flipped Panarin and Chris Kreider, who notched the only goal in the 4-1 elimination a couple of days ago.
Next winter when the new season starts up, Kakko must be in the top six. He needs to be given every chance to succeed. I understood Quinn’s rationale for playing him mostly on the third line with Filip Chytil. He wasn’t ready to face the toughest assignments. Ironically, it was when he and Chytil played with Brett Howden that there was chemistry. However, I’m not sure Howden is more than a fourth line checking pivot that can kill penalties. He was another bright spot in the three game nightmare that saw the Rangers outscored 11-4.
It wasn’t the young kids who disappointed. It was the top guns with Kreider admitting that he allowed Skjei’s big hit on Fast to affect him for too long. He even referenced Blood Sport when discussing how the team played the first two games. The game isn’t all about hitting. It’s about absorbing hits too to make plays.
The Rangers are a puck possession team that doesn’t hit much. That wasn’t the case against Carolina, who’s strategy got the Blueshirts off their game by finishing every check at the start. Credit coach Rod Brind’Amour for out-coaching Quinn. He had the deeper roster with more experience and it showed. One quote that stands out is following Game One, Quinn noted how the Hurricanes played like a team that was upset it lost four times to the Rangers in the regular season. They looked angry and proved a point. By the time the Blueshirts decided to play hockey as Kreider said, it was too late.
In the series, Kakko received an average ice time of 15:53. Up from the 14:17 he got during the season. He earned it even if it took an injury to Fast to get him into the top six. His six shots were fourth among forwards trailing only the Big Three of Panarin (10), Zibanejad (9) and Kreider (9). Strome also had six shots and the same amount of points as the top guns even though he was unfairly criticized by some for the loss. The same for DeAngelo, who was ineffective due to a hamstring injury.
Kakko will take away a lot from this experience. He worked hard and was more effective at even strength. An area he must continue to excel at to become the player the Rangers envision. The talent is there. It’s about getting faster and stronger. Once he does, the goals will come. Another thing is that he has to play on the first power play unit. Thirteen of his 23 points came on the power play where he went 2-11-13. Eight of his 10 goals were at even strength due to how he was used.
Even if Strome is back, they need to give Kakko more time on the man-advantage due to him being shooting threat. Strome is a facilitator who makes teammates better. He can play on the second unit with Pavel Buchnevich, Chytil, Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba. Strome is also way better on draws than Chytil.
For a contrast, look at how the Blackhawks use Kirby Dach. The third pick in the 2019 Draft is getting major minutes from coach Jeremy Colliton, who has been critiqued plenty by Chicago fans.
More of a two-way player than either Hughes or Kakko, the rookie center has seen a dramatic increase in ice time. After averaging 14:16 during the regular season over 64 games, Dach is up to 20:22 in the three postseason games that have the Blackhawks a win away from upsetting the Oilers. He helped set up the first of two goals from captain Jonathan Toews during yesterday’s come from behind 4-3 win in Edmonton.
That gives him four assists in the Western Qualifier. A good overall player, who uses his 6-4, 197 pound frame well, Dach is always around the net. He screened Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen on another Hawks goal scored by defenseman Olli Maatta in the first period. A good skater who makes things happen, Colliton has trusted him to play with star Patrick Kane. No small feat.
Dach also kills penalties and plays power play. Basically, he already has gained enough trust from his coach to play in every game situation. A rarity for a teenager. The Hawks were questioned for selecting him third over defenseman Bowen Byram, who went to the Avalanche.
Part of that was due to the Chicago defense that’s still heavily dependent on veteran Duncan Keith. With Brent Seabrook almost done, it’s a make shift defense that consists of Keith, Maatta, Calvin de Haan, Connor Murphy, Slater Koekkoek and young prospect Adam Boqvist. At some point, the defense issue will have to be addressed.
However, Dach is making them look smart for grabbing him at third overall behind the much more hyped Hughes and Kakko. Both of who are expected to be stars. Neither is as complete as Dach, who just might wind up being the kind of second line two-way center the Rangers needed. I’m not giving up on Kakko. Just stating facts about the kind of North American style Dach brings.
He has four assists in three games and is a plus-four. In Game Three which Toews won late, Dach received over 23 minutes including 6:14 on the power play and 1:47 shorthanded. More ice time than either Kane (22:36) or Toews (21:16). Only Keith had more.
That says a lot about Colliton’s faith in the rookie. I’m not suggesting Dach will be better than Kakko or Hughes. I expect both to put up more points with Kakko leading in the goal department. However, if they had Dach, you’d have that responsible second line center for the next decade. The kind the team lacks.
I’m not sold on Chytil, who’s defensive awareness leaves something to be desired. Strome is either back for one more year or gone.
Kakko is a right wing which means he must produce to become successful. Don’t forget the health concerns. He is a diabetic with Celiac disease. That will only make it harder for him. They made sure he was okay to be cleared to play due to the pandemic. Health comes first.
Hopefully, the 19-year old Kakko will continue to improve in Year Two. Quinn better not mess around. The kid must have a bigger role along with Chytil. The team’s future depends on it.