Will Kakko ever be a consistent goal scorer? Issues facing the Rangers as first half wraps up

The scouting reports were glowing. Many hockey pundits felt very strongly that then prospect Kaapo Kakko would become a good finisher at the NHL level.

“Kaapo Kakko is a very good player,” said TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button following an impressive run to help Finland win at the 2019 World Championships. He posted six goals and an assist. “We saw what he did at the World Championships. That’s just one sample size of him. He’s done very well, he’s got very good skills and the ability to impact the game in a very different way than [fellow top prospect Jack Hughes].”

Entering that hyped 2019 NHL Draft, the consensus was even that Kakko could challenge Jack Hughes for the top pick. The Devils chose the playmaking American Hughes, who was a center. Since that decision, he’s made improvements every year. In his third season, Hughes has proven he can be a first line center. His 20 points (9-11-20) over 20 games on a struggling team without a proven finisher show the growth and maturity of an emerging star.

When the Rangers grabbed the Finnish Kakko with the second pick, they were only too happy to get a consolation prize who was considered to be a future 35 to 40 goal scorer. Given his size and preference to play on the right wing as opposed to the middle, the organization had every belief Kakko would become the player many touted for having a complete game.

Aside from scoring the golden goal to lift Finland over USA for the U20 World Junior Championship in 2019, Kakko performed well for TPS in Liiga back home. In an elite professional league, he scored 22 goals with 16 assists in 45 games. The 22 tallies surpassed Aleksander Barkov for a new record by a draft eligible player. There was a lot of cause for excitement.

“When you look at Kakko, he’s so strong, he’s so smart, he’s so good around the net and, really, we’ve seen a huge ascendence from him,” Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News said in the same draft piece that appeared on the Devils official website. “I think he’s going to be a force on the wing. I think he’s a player who can go right to the NHL and there’s a lot of upside there.”

It wasn’t like he was receiving accolades from people who weren’t considered knowledgeable on top prospects. TSN insider Bob McKenzie had Kakko ranked second among skaters behind Hughes for the ’19 Draft. Most believed in what the forward was capable of at the next level. He played professionally in Finland. This is the same league that produced Barkov, who’s one of the game’s best players. A great all around top center with the contending Panthers, Barkov has a Selke to his credit and is a terrific player.

Stardom might not have come right away. But Barkov took positive steps while being helped along by NHL legend Jaromir Jagr, who played on the Florida top line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha. Now, both Huberdeau and Barkov are two of the game’s best players on a very deep team that can score at any moment. It’ll be interesting to see how the Cats do in the loaded Atlantic Division that features the two-time champion Lightning, Maple Leafs and Bruins.

When it comes to the development of Kakko, it hasn’t gone smoothly on Broadway. After a forgettable first year where he only put up 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games with a minus-26 rating, he still struggled in the scoring department in Year Two. Under former coach David Quinn, who mostly used him on the third line, Kakko tallied nine goals and eight assists while showing improvement defensively with a plus-3 rating in 48 contests. It was seen as a positive sign that maybe Year Three would be a breakout.

Even with a coaching change and more team success under Gerard Gallant, Kakko has continued to underwhelm offensively. While he has shown growth by getting more comfortable with the puck in the offensive zone by setting up better line mates in Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, it hasn’t resulted in the kind of production one would expect from the 20-year old right wing. In 35 contests so far, he has five goals and nine assists with a solid plus-6 rating.

It isn’t so much about his overall play. That has been fine. Kakko is a responsible two-way player who is good at takeaways and stronger defensively. The puck possession skills are noticeable. When he’s on the ice at even strength, Kakko is okay. It helps that Gallant has provided him with better players. Though he seemed to have more success with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin before they moved him up to the first line with Zibanejad and Kreider.

He does get power play time. Although he mostly sees second unit due to the regular Rangers’ five man unit that features Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Strome and Adam Fox, Kakko did fill in for Panarin on the number one power play. Of his five goals, four have come at even strength with one on the man-advantage. Overall, 12 of 14 points are at even strength.

Even though he hardly saw any power play time or favorable line combinations his first two seasons under Quinn, who was a lot quicker to bench a young player for mistakes, Kakko is averaging 16:09 of ice time in his third year. That’s close to two minutes more than the first two seasons.

It would stand to reason that his production should increase. Instead, they’re near the halfway point of a successful season and Kakko has five goals and 55 shots on goal in 35 games. The shooting percentage of 9.1 percent is actually down from ’21 when he was at 11.1 with nine goals on 81 shots last year.

One could argue that he’s still a very young player that’s learning. He doesn’t turn 21 until February 13. That’s a fair point. We don’t know how Kakko will perform in the second half. With upcoming tests against the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes this week, it’ll be interesting to see how Kakko and the team fare. Those are two of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers will play Toronto for the third and final time on Wednesday after having split the previous two meetings. They have yet to face Carolina, who has the best win percentage in the Metro Division. It’s the first of four meetings with the other three once the weather warms up. That includes one on March 20 right before the NHL Trade Deadline.

In terms of where Kakko is, he still has much to prove. On a team that’s 25-10-4 and currently first in their division, the Rangers boast only three players with double digit goals. They’ve relied heavily on Kreider, who paces them with 24 goals including 12 on the power play. A hot streak has Zibanejad with nine goals over 11 games to rank second behind Kreider with 14 overall and seven on the power play. Panarin is third with 10.

Somewhat curiously, 2020 top pick Alexis Lafreniere is tied with Barclay Goodrow and Strome with eight goals. He has better hands than Kakko, who hasn’t displayed the finishing capability many believed. The difference is Lafreniere is mostly in a supporting role. Though recently, he had some success while working with Strome and Panarin filling in for Goodrow before entering COVID Protocol. Both forwards could be ready to return by Wednesday.

If you’re looking closely at who’s producing at even strength, it’s Kreider with 11 goals followed by both Panarin and Lafreniere with 8. Zibanejad has 7. The trio of Goodrow, Kevin Rooney and Strome all have 6. All four of Fox’s goals have come at even strength. Jacob Trouba has five of his six at even strength. Kakko and Fil Chytil come in at four apiece. Both could be keys to the second half. That’s assuming Kakko improves and Chytil doesn’t get moved before the deadline. He’s looked better since being moved to the wing.

The big reason for calling out Kakko is that when you really look at the Rangers, they aren’t scoring enough at five-on-five. The power play has covered up that area enough along with the stellar play of Igor Shesterkin. Here’s the dilemma. When the playoffs hit, fewer penalties are called.

That means the focus will be primarily at even strength. An issue this team has. They’re too much on the defensive. Part of that is due to the rotating third pair and the inconsistencies of K’Andre Miller. A defenseman who’s in his second year. He can either be steady or uneven as evidenced by a recent bad stretch. Is he really cut out for second pair or is the organization hurting itself by limiting potential better options? That remains to be seen.

Unlike many people who report or blog by using fancy statistics, I don’t do that as much. I watch with my own eyes and look closely at what each player is doing on their shifts. While I will use possession stats as a reference that now includes a breakdown of five-on-five and even strength along with start time, I try to watch their positioning. If there’s an area Miller can work on, it’s not getting beat to the outside. This has been a frequent occurrence. You can cite every Corsica statistic imaginable. He isn’t there yet.

Most defensenen take time to develop. One characteristic I wish Miller had more of is a physical edge. He isn’t going to finish many checks. Similar to former Ranger and current Red Wing Marc Staal, he tends to use his reach to help recover and break up plays. That’s fine as long as he’s not getting caught and beaten. Something that must be addressed by the coaching staff. He has a steady partner in Trouba, whose grit and experience come in handy. But he can’t do everything. A point lost on the analytics community.

Will they ever try Zac Jones with Trouba? Or take another look at him on the third pair? I don’t mean playing with Libor Hajek either. Whether it’s alongside veteran Patrik Nemeth or the very poised 20-year old Braden Schneider, whose defensive positioning is very impressive for a recent first round pick, the organization needs to explore other options. They can’t be totally satisfied with things.

The record is more a reflection of the heavy lifting Shesterkin, Kreider, Zibanejad, Panarin, Fox, Trouba and underrated Ryan Lindgren have done. Strome is in the mix too since he is the second center who has good chemistry with Panarin. They’re still minus a true top six forward. The same can be echoed for the first line.

If you’re this team, what do you do? There’s still over two months until the trade deadline. With enough cap space to add a key player or two that could fill holes such as another finisher or steady veteran defenseman as an upgrade, that will fall on Team President and GM Chris Drury. He’ll have to decide along with Gallant if they’re all in. If it’s a Tomas Hertl or J.T. Miller that become available, will they be willing to pull the trigger? What about a Broadway reunion with Staal to upgrade third pair? He has a no-movement clause.

The real key to this season could hinge on Kakko, Lafreniere and Chytil with the latter uncertain to stay. Kakko is in Year Three. Of the forwards mentioned, he has the best opportunity to improve his production. That means scoring goals more consistently. The work ethic is there. The hands haven’t been. He must get to the hard areas more so he doesn’t go through any more scoring slumps.

If he is going to become a reliable scorer, then he must start looking shot more aggressively and instinctively. They need him to. If not, the organization will have no choice but to look elsewhere for scoring help.

If they want to do better than one round when the competition intensifies this Spring, they need to become a better overall team at five-on-five. It can’t only be the top guns. Others must step up. We know what battle tested vets like Goodrow will bring. But there must be better productivity from the kids to succeed.

The present and future of the Blueshirts depends upon it.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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