Kalle Kaskinen sweats it out in his backyard on this uncharacteristically warm April day in Turku, Finland. He’s renovating his garden and terrace. It’s a huge project that will keep him outside for weeks. He’s content. And yet he isn’t.
He can’t believe he’s not standing behind a bench staring at a sheet of ice right now. He coaches TPS of the Liiga, Finland’s top league, and his squad got bounced from the playoffs in the quarterfinal a couple weeks earlier. The defeat still stings. At least the garden offers a serene escape from hockey. Mention the name Kaapo Kakko, however, and Kaskinen will gladly drop his tools to talk.
“Anything for Kaapo,” he says.
He makes no attempt to hide his reverence for his star pupil. Kaskinen first met Kakko when he was 15 – competing way above his age group on Kaskinen’s under-20 Jr. A TPS club in 2016-17. Kaskinen grew up playing hockey with Finnish legend Saku Koivu, who’s now a part-owner of TPS. Kaskinen always admired Koivu’s determination and focus and instantly recognized the same qualities in Kakko, a playmaking right winger. Kaskinen felt Kakko had Koivu’s fire but, with a 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame, was actually harder to play against than Koivu. Kaskinen couldn’t believe how quickly Kakko rose to the top scoring line alongside players several years his senior.
It’s been a pattern throughout Kakko’s life: join a league with players far older than him, dominate it, move up a level, join a league with players far older than him, dominate it, rinse, repeat. Most recently, we saw that at the highest tier of Finnish hockey. Competing for the TPS squad in 2018-19, Kakko sniped 22 goals in 45 games, breaking Aleksander Barkov’s league record for goals by an 18-year-old. Barkov amazed as a teenager in the Liiga, and Kaskinen singles out Mikael Granlund’s brilliance, too, but neither tops Kakko. “In his age group, he’s the best,” Kaskinen said. “He can play with the puck, he can beat you 1-on-1, he can take hits, he can give hits, and he’s like a man already.”
We can soon compare Kakko to Barkov and Granlund directly – in the NHL. Kakko is a consensus top-two selection in the 2019 draft class, much closer to top-ranked Jack Hughes than anyone predicted a year ago.
Perhaps no one is more surprised by the rise than the young man doing it. Kakko didn’t always see the NHL in his future. He was a typical Finnish child, in love with hockey and soccer. He played as much hockey as he could, but unlike so many prospects these days, Kakko wasn’t the kid who had the keys to the arena and spent every waking hour on the ice.
His father, Petri, was a cop, his mom, Sari, a kindergarten teacher, so Kaapo wasn’t born into a rich hockey bloodline. He and his brother Konsta played as much road hockey as they did ice hockey. “With the neighbors’ kids, we built a small rink in our backyard, but that was only for sneakers,” said Kakko through an interpreter. “There was never any ice on it. Shooting mostly.”
Kakko thus couldn’t spend all day skating but could develop a dazzling set of hands. He studied Patrick Kane plenty, but he watched Auston Matthews more than anyone. “I think my style is similar with Matthews,” Kakko said. “As for Finnish players, Mikko Rantanen is someone that I look up to and try to copy some of his moves.”
Kakko says he was 16 when he started to view the NHL as a realistic goal. Getting invited to play for Finland’s under-16 national squad planted the idea in his head. Once it was there, he thought about little else for the next two years. Talk to Kaskinen or Jussi Ahokas, who coached Kakko at the 2019 World Junior Championship, and each describes a youngster whose hobby away from hockey is, well, more hockey. Kakko doesn’t party. He’s not the biggest joker on any of his teams. He carries himself more like a veteran than a rookie – at least in front of the other veterans, as he’s usually playing with people older than him. He fits seamlessly into any dressing room. “People like him, players like him,” Ahokas said. “As a person, he’s a really good kid. He just loves hockey. He wants to train, loves to train, loves to play the game.”
So how, exactly, does Kakko play the game? The Finnish comparisons are an easy if lazy place to start. The hands and early career accomplishments rival Barkov’s, but Barkov impacts the game differently as a center. Some people liken Kakko to Patrik Laine, but that’s just a recency bias talking since Laine went second overall in the 2016 NHL draft. Kakko doesn’t see the parallel. “Nobody can shoot like Patrik,” Kakko said. “I skated with him last summer and saw that shot up close. Wow! I’ve scored goals, but my goals come from closer range. I play more like Mikko.”
He’s the best. He can play with the puck, he can beat you 1-on-1, he can take hits, he can give hits, and he’s like a man already
– Kalle Kaskinen
Like Rantanen, Kakko earns praise from scouts and coaches for his intelligence and skill ragging the puck in the offensive zone. Call up some highlight clips and you’ll witness Kakko’s unique ability to slow the action down and give himself extra time. He backs off defenders with quick dekes and cuts, creating space to set up teammates. He projects to be prodigiously dangerous on the power play.
Oddly, despite not being the backyard-ice-rink kid, Kakko also gets good marks for his skating. “He’s a much better skater than Rantanen at that age,” Ahokas said. “I’ve seen them both at that age. They have really good hockey sense, but Kaapo would be a little bit ahead of what Mikko was at that point in his career. Patrik is more of a shooter and goal-scorer. The comparison to Rantanen is better, but I still think they’re different. Kaapo is a special kid.”
Kaskinen launches the superlatives to the next stratosphere. He describes Kakko as a combination of Koivu, Matthews and Peter Forsberg, with Kakko’s pride and competitiveness representing the Forsberg ingredient.
Given all the gushing, it’s not surprising some rumor mills floated the idea in the spring that Hughes wasn’t the automatic No. 1 pick. Hughes still has the edge as a center, but Kakko also looks like a franchise-changing player and one of the best, if not the best, prospects to come out of Finland. That’s saying a lot given how much elite talent the nation has produced in recent years. It doesn’t mean Kakko is Jari Kurri or Teemu Selanne reincarnated. But Kakko may have the most hype and praise heaped on him of any 18-year-old Finn in history.
Kakko isn’t perfect, of course. Ahokas bluntly states he was underwhelmed with his star’s performance at the world juniors (two goals, five points in seven games), suggesting even Kakko would agree despite the fact the Finns won gold and Kakko scored the tournament-winning goal, backhanding home a loose puck to sink Team USA with 1:26 remaining in the third period. Ahokas doesn’t think Kakko shoots the puck enough and believes he could and should score more than he does.
Still, the combination of high floor and ceiling all but guarantees Kakko slips no further than second in the draft, which is a boon to the New York Rangers, who finished with the NHL’s sixth-worst record and jumped four spots to win the second pick in the April 9 draft lottery. The chances of that happening were 7.8 percent. The No. 2 selection will accelerate an already dramatic rebuild.
After possessing no first-round picks from 2013 to 2016, the Rangers’ two first-rounders this spring will be their sixth and seventh since the 2017 draft, joining Lias Andersson (seventh, 2017), Filip Chytil (21st, 2017), Vitali Kravtsov (ninth, 2018), K’Andre Miller (22nd, 2018) and Nils Lundkvist (28th, 2018). The Rangers jumped 13 spots year over year in The Hockey News’ Future Watch farm-system rankings, from 24th to 11th, and they’re particularly excited about Kravtsov, whom head scout Gordie Clark compares to Evgeni Malkin. But no one offers more immediate potential to transform the 2019-20 lineup on opening night than Kakko.
Rangers GM Jeff Gorton isn’t ready to acknowledge that Kakko will don Broadway Blue at the podium June 21. The Rangers want to play things diplomatically for now. “It’s the fairest thing to do,” Gorton said. “Obviously, people have their ratings, and you hear the same names over and over in the top two. But we’re lucky that the lottery was moved up to an earlier date. It gives us a chance to go to the world under-18s, see some players and go to the World Championship and see some other guys. The timing was good for us. It allows us to go through our process and to talk to the players, their families, everybody around them, then make our decision.”
Kakko will suit up for Finland at the 2019 World Championship. Barring some sort of otherworldly development, he’ll be a Ranger. Bet on it. It’s extremely difficult to imagine the New Jersey Devils passing on Hughes at No. 1, and it’s just as unlikely the Rangers duck Kakko at No. 2. Their fan base should be excited because Kakko’s smarts and size scream NHL-ready. “If Jesperi Kotkaniemi could play this year, Kaapo could play right away,” Ahokas said. “He has good size, but he still has to grow strength-wise. If he has a good summer and works hard, he’ll be ready for the NHL next year for sure.”
Kakko would be the ninth consecutive forward picked No. 2 overall to jump directly to the NHL, joining Tyler Seguin, Gabriel Landeskog, Barkov, Sam Reinhart (returned to junior after nine games), Jack Eichel, Laine, Nolan Patrick and Andrei Svechnikov. Given the expectations accompanying that draft slot in this era, it’s all but certain the Liiga has seen the last of its wunderkind.
Kaskinen will have all off-season in his garden to ponder how to replace TPS’s most irreplaceable player. But the joy trumps any disappointment. “I would like to keep him on my team,” said Kaskinen with a laugh, “but he has to go. He’s our diamond, and we’re so proud of him. So let’s wish him good luck.”