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Kaapo Kakko is ready for the NHL's glaring spotlight

He's one of the best Finnish prospects of all-time and he's just getting started. With New York his likely destination, the right winger won't be able to hide as a rookie. Good thing he's been working on his English.

VANCOUVER - As one of the hottest Finnish draft prospects ever, right winger Kappo Kakko is obviously advanced. His agent, Andy Scott of Octagon Hockey, believes Kakko is already ahead of fellow clients Patrik Laine and Mikko Rantanen when they were his age - in one category, at least.

“His English really took off this year,” Scott said. “He consistently got better.”

As for hockey, we all know that Kakko is also pretty good - but that goes without saying. And while it may seem a little trivial, the youngster’s ability to adapt to life in North America will be crucial to any early success he may experience next season. Given that Kakko’s likely destination is Manhattan’s New York Rangers, he will not be able to slide into the NHL quietly.

Luckily, it’s already been a high-profile year for Kakko. His star turn at the world juniors elevated him from prospect world fave to mainstream hit, especially after he scored the game-winning goal for Finland in the gold-medal game against Team USA in Vancouver. Throughout the tournament, Kakko used a translator (at one point it was New Jersey Devils prospect and teammate Aarne Talvitie, who plays in the U.S. for Penn State), but by the World Championship in May (where he also won a gold medal with Finland), he was answering questions in English.

As one of the most sought-after prospects at Draft media day in Vancouver, Kakko faced the hordes and didn’t mind the fact he was getting bombarded with attention and inquiries.

“No, no, no,” he said. “It’s good for me, I like it. It’s a new thing for me. Sometimes it’s difficult, but I’m better than the last time I was in Vancouver.”

While children from Finland typically begin learning English at school in Grade 3, it’s worth noting what a difficult transition it can be. Finnish is practically an impenetrable language for most foreigners, because the words and sentence structure are so radically different from English or say, Swedish - which Finnish children also learn in school. So you can imagine that going from Finnish to English would be just as difficult as the other way around.

Going back to Laine, the Winnipeg Jets sniper also used a translator when he was making noise at the 2016 world juniors on a line with Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi. By the summer however, Laine was on his own and since he came into the NHL, he has quickly become a great quote. Puljujarvi on the other hand has taken longer to get used to things in North America and that could be part of the reason he has struggled. It’s gotten to the point where his agent has openly advocated that the power forward be traded by the Edmonton Oilers in order to get a fresh start.

Knowing that he wanted to play in the NHL as soon as he was deemed ready, Kakko made sure to speak English as much as he could in the dressing room back in Finland this year: TPS Turku had several North Americans to practise on, including Zach Budish, Joe Piskula and Brandon Gormley. But Kakko also got a big assist from former NHLer and Finnish national Lauri Korpikoski, who took the kid under his wing.

“He helped me so much,” Kakko said.

At this point, little more needs to be said about Kakko as an NHL prospect. He’s got the size, the drive and the offensive creativity to be a monster on the wing as he continues to develop from a teen to a man. The Rangers fan base is already over the moon for the kid and that love affair will likely grow once he officially dons the jersey and starts flying around Madison Square Garden in the fall. We know what he can do on the ice - now the fun will be to see how his personality develops off of it. And the humor is already coming. When I asked him about New York City itself, Kakko’s wit had the assembled reporters roaring.

“It’s a nice city,” he said with a grin. “It’s a little bit bigger than Turku.”

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