A disappointment so far, Kakko must prove worth on bridge deal

It was three years ago that the Rangers moved up to the top two in the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

At that point, before the number one pick was revealed to the Devils, fans were ecstatic at the prospect of landing Kaapo Kakko. Maybe it was just a hunch. I was actually disappointed that the Manhattan side of a unique Hudson rivalry wound up second behind the New Jersey side.

Sometimes, you just know. In that moment, I was right. The Devils made the right choice by selecting center Jack Hughes with the top pick. Despite playing it close to the vest, they wound up with a franchise player.

The Rangers picked Kakko at number two. It felt like a consolation prize. After he scored the gold medal winner for Finland in an exciting win over Team USA at the 2019 U20 World Junior Championships, many experts loved the forward. He had the size and strength to win board battles and keep puck possession.

Classified a goal scorer, Kakko was considered the finisher the Rangers lacked. At the time, Chris Kreider still hadn’t hit 30 goals. Artemi Panarin had yet to sign with the Blueshirts. That would soon follow leading to more excitement over adding a star forward who makes teammates better.

It was a different time. The Rangers were an afterthought. But you felt it was about to turn around when they drafted Kakko and then signed Panarin away from Columbus. What followed was a trade for defenseman Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg. He soon signed an extension to further improve the roster prior to ’19-20.

As big a year as Panarin had in what amounted to the Covid interrupted season that ended in August when the Rangers were swept by the Hurricanes in an uncompetitive Stanley Cup Qualifier Series, they somehow struck gold when that three-game sweep landed them future 2020 top pick Alexis Lafreniere.

With Mika Zibanejad also having a breakout ’19-20 where he scored 41 goals and 75 points in 57 games along with Panarin finishing third for league MVP after a career best 95 points (32-63-95) alongside Ryan Strome, it felt like the beginning of something special.

Thanks to the rookie debut of Igor Shestyorkin, who soon would supplant Henrik Lundqvist in net with Alex Georgiev backing up, it truly was the beginning. With future Norris winner Adam Fox finishing fourth for the Calder and Tony DeAngelo (remember him?) leading the way on the blue line, the Rangers were on their way back.

Due largely to the performances of the aforementioned players with three having since moved on, Kakko’s rookie year got overlooked. Considering how much he struggled to adjust to the North American style, maybe that was a good thing.

In 66 games, he scored 10 goals and added 13 assists for 23 points with a minus-26 rating. It wasn’t what was expected. However, Hughes also had a tough time. In Year One, he had 21 points (7-14-21) and an identical minus-26 rating in 61 games for the Devils.

Perhaps the weight of expectation was too high on both teenagers. Not every highly rated prospect comes in and takes the league by storm. For every Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin, there’s a Barkov or Draisaitl. In other words, it depends on the player no matter how much hype.

A key part is development. Let’s just politely say that I didn’t agree with how Kakko was handled early on. His skating was lacking and he was lost defensively. Nothing a stint at Hartford couldn’t have helped fix. But the organization decided to keep him up.

To his credit, Kakko never showed any frustration despite how former coach David Quinn deployed him. It wasn’t exactly the way anyone envisioned. That’s why San Jose GM Mike Grier had to come to the newly hired Quinn’s defense at an introductory press conference last week.

Quinn didn’t handle Lafreniere well either. A more mature player who still had to earn his ice time under Gerard Gallant last season. Despite minimal opportunities on the second power play, he scored all 19 of his goals at even strength in Year Two. He also showed improvement as the year went on, posting 2-7-9 in the team’s run to Eastern Conference Final.

For Kakko, who only had seven goals and 11 assists in 43 games during an injury riddled third season, he’s still just 21. There’s plenty of time for him to evolve. Having totaled only 26 goals in 157 regular season games, there’ll be more attention focused on him as he enters his fourth season. Especially after voicing his displeasure over being a healthy scratch in Game Six against the Lightning.

Who could blame him? Gallant chose his guy Dryden Hunt over Kakko and played a hobbled Strome, who couldn’t go after one period. Kakko had at least displayed a more consistent forecheck while being teamed with Lafreniere and Filip Chytil on the Kid Line. The trio were effective throughout the postseason. It stands to reason not playing Kakko was a mistake.

But if you followed that series closely, you know it was lost as soon as Ondrej Palat scored in the final minute of Game Three. That swung the momentum. He’d also get the crusher that doomed them in Game Five. There’s nothing else to add.

While Chytil posted seven goals and totaled nine points like Lafreniere, Kakko tallied a pair of goals and added three helpers for five points in the playoffs. He then indicated that being benched would serve as a motivator. We’ll see.

For a while, nothing happened when it came to contract negotiations between the Rangers and RFA Kakko. Team President and GM Chris Drury took his time. He’d already handled the departures of Strome, Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano by signing Vincent Trocheck to fill the void at second center.

After dealing Georgiev to the Avalanche, Drury zeroed in on veteran Jaro Halak to replace Georgie as the new backup behind Shestyorkin, whose remarkable season culminated in his first Vezina. The best year a Ranger goalie had since Lundqvist exactly a decade ago when he also won the Vezina. Ironically, both netminders finished in the top three for the Hart while losing in six during the Conference Finals.

For reasons only known to him, Drury opted to keep Julien Gauthier and Libor Hajek. Once they signed plugger Ryan Carpenter, that took them out of the mix for Tyler Motte. The invaluable checking forward and penalty killer remains unsigned. It doesn’t look like he’ll be back.

With all the usual silly rumors circulating about Kakko, the two sides finally reached agreement on a bridge deal that’ll pay him $2.1 million a season. Considering where he is in his development, the two-year, $4.2 million deal is fair.

Having totaled 58 points (26-32-58) over his first three years, it’s time for Kakko to prove his worth. The subtraction of key contributors Copp, Vatrano and Strome have opened the door. With Vitaly Kravtsov deciding to get serious (at least so far), Kakko could be in direct competition with the once exiled Russian for a potential spot on the right side next to Panarin and Trocheck.

For a player who has been underwhelming so far, it’s a good opportunity to take the bull by the horns. Kakko has improved overall. He is more responsible defensively. He also has become more of a playmaker. His passing is better than expected. At times though, you want to see him shoot the puck. Something he hasn’t done enough of.

Consistency is the key. If Kakko is out to prove the doubters wrong, it’s important for the Finn to take a step forward in ’22-23. He should have more chances along with Lafreniere, who could wind up as the new right wing on the top line. Something I’m in favor of.

As much as I like the chemistry the trio of Chytil, Kakko and Lafreniere have, isn’t it about time to find out what they’re fully capable of? Lafreniere has the look of a finisher who could top 30 goals and put up points while playing with Zibanejad and 52-goal man Kreider. He also is very active during shifts. Why shortchange him when they don’t boast a number one right wing at the moment?

It’ll be up to Gallant. Training camp is less than two months away. With football back in full swing as we approach August, it’ll be here before you know it.

Not only will they be assessing former first picks Kakko, Lafreniere and Kravtsov. But recent 2021 first rounder Brennan Othmann. A promising player who dominated the OHL last year. Will he force their hand or wind up back at Flint?

2020 second round pick Will Cuylle is ready to go pro. It’ll either be with the Wolf Pack or Rangers. A tremendous playoffs that saw him notch 15 goals with 16 assists for Windsor who fell short of winning the Memorial Cup, certainly bodes well for the 20-year old forward. He was acquired for Lias Andersson from the Kings. That one is looking good so far.

With under a million left in room, the Rangers probably are done with the off-season. Unless they can free up some salary, Motte will wind up elsewhere. He is the kind of gritty player any team can use. I wonder if the Red Wings would want to bring him home like they did Copp. It shouldn’t cost over $2.4 million. Who knows what the msrket is for Motte, who’s more than statistics.

As for Kakko, there is much to prove. He isn’t established yet. You hope he can finally put it together. The Rangers need him to. But if he’s not there yet, Gallant could have other options like Sammy Blais or Kravtsov if he isn’t traded.

The best case scenario is Kakko wins the second line RW job. He would get to play with Panarin and Trocheck, who’s a two-way pivot that wins draws. That would bode well.

It won’t be given to him. He’ll have to earn it. The same applies to any young player including Lafreniere. The Rangers are a win now team. Even if they’ll be a bit younger both up front and possibly on the blue line with Matthew Robertson, Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist likely competing for a job on the third pair that features Braden Schneider, expectations have increased.

There’ll be more pressure. No matter how you slice it, ’21-22 was a pleasant surprise. They weren’t supposed to reach the Final Four. A couple of bounces a different way, it’s the Rangers who reach the Stanley Cup Finals and play Colorado. Pretty crazy.

Can Kakko hit 20 goals and put up at least 40 points? That has to be the goal. If he wants to shed the bust label, there’s no time like the present. October 11th is not far away. The pressure is on.


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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