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The Curious Case of Kaapo Kakko

Kaapo Kakko has all of the tools to become a quality player in the NHL, but success simply hasn't followed. What happened?
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When the New York Rangers put out the famous ‘Rebuild Letter’ in February of 2018, they made a nearly unprecedented move. 

One of the biggest franchises in the sport of hockey announced that, for all intents and purposes, they were going to suck for a bit - and they have.

This level of transparency must have pleased the hockey gods as they picked in the top ten that year and then they were blessed with some of the most fortunate lottery luck. They moved from sixth to second in 2019. In 2020, the team won not one, but two lotteries in 2020 to go from playing in the play-in playoff round to grabbing the first overall pick.

To say they've been lucky in the lottery would be an understatement. The problem is, lotteries don’t guarantee you players who come in and change the franchise.

That luck seems to run out as soon as their high-end picks step onto the ice at Madison Square Garden. There has been drama year after year with Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth pick in 2018. The player and the team have both had their moments of blame in that situation. Alexis Lafrenière has started his NHL career much slower than anyone anticipated and has seen time on the fourth line.

That leaves Kaapo Kakko. The second overall pick in 2019 was extremely highly touted. He possessed all of the tools you look for in an NHL player. Many in the draft world felt that he was the more NHL-ready prospect in comparison to top pick Jack Hughes.

So what happened?

During his draft season, all Kakko did was become the most prolific U-18 goal scorer in Liiga history. Kakko’s 22 goals bested Alexander Barkov’s record of 21 and he did it in eight fewer games. He finished with the third-highest point total for a U-18 player in Liiga history as well, behind only Mikael Granlund and Barkov.

What made Kakko one of the best Finnish prospects in NHL draft history was his ability to play a skilled game with assertiveness and aggressiveness seldom seen by a teenager playing against men. He was strong and sturdy on his feet, attacking the play with and without the puck. Kakko showed elite board play with the ability to work a cycle or break the puck out of a pile and make a play with it.

The young Finn was a shooter who thrived on skating downhill at the netminder and letting it rip. He was also advanced enough as an offensive mind to understand that because everyone knew that, he would go through the process and make a pass after drawing everyone in. He wasn’t necessarily a dangler but he had very good hands and used his frame to protect the puck at a high level.

Defensively, Kakko showed advanced tendencies and the ability to be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice. He was hard on the backcheck and showed promise with his positioning and puck disruption ability. His game was deemed complete by many with room to grow, which led to a great deal of discussion as to whether he should be the first overall pick.

Since his draft day, we’ve seen Kakko struggle mightily in the NHL. Coming into the Rangers lineup under David Quinn, he was a round peg being forced into a square hole. Quinn wanted his players to play simple hockey. No stick handling on a two-on-one, get the puck in deep, sprint to your position defensively and sit down. The game Quinn asked his New York Rangers teams to play was archaic in the modern NHL.

A dynamic, aggressive offensive threat was told to play like a passive, dump-and-chase college hockey kid. Kakko was unable to utilize his toolset because he was unable to play his game, right from the start.

The creativity was taken out of his game. The aggression that was once there, was no longer there. He was often demoted or had his minutes cut because he would attempt to play hockey in a modern and puck-possession style, carrying the puck over the offensive blueline in order to set up a chance. If you get your minutes cut, you generally end up doing what the coach asks, which in this case was stunting the growth of a promising young player.

Another factor that seems to have played a role in Kakko’s uninspiring start to his NHL career is the lack of a consistent role in the lineup. Specifically in his first two seasons, under David Quinn, Kakko had played with just about everyone on the Rangers roster. Whether it was the in-game line blender or just constant shuffling of lines in practices, Kakko didn’t play more than 140 minutes with any set line.

The chart below shows that the only time that Kakko has been given a run of 140 minutes with any line in a season is this season, under new coach Gerard Gallant, where he has played the vast majority of the season with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Constant line shuffling is clearly not beneficial when it comes to building any chemistry.

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All data courtesy of Evolving Hockey

Included in the chart is also GF% (goals for percentage) which indicates how well the line does in terms of scoring for and against. Predictably, Kakko looks at his best when playing with Panarin. The Rangers’ best player boosts everyone’s numbers by association, as he drives play at an elite level.

The data also shows that Kakko does well with skilled, top-six level linemates whether that is Panarin and Strome or others such as Lafrenière or Chris Kreider. When you put a skilled player with other skilled players, good things happen.

While his rookie season was a borderline disaster results-wise, both in terms of hockey card stats and analytically, he showed a great deal of improvement in his sophomore year as his defensive game took a massive step. In the graphs below we see a comparison between his rookie year and sophomore year, with Kakko taking a major step towards being a defensive stalwart.

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Data and graphs courtesy of Evolving Hockey

We’ve seen Kakko with consistent and talented linemates this season and he has still seen struggles to start the season. The habits developed under his former coach persisted early in the season. With that said, we’ve seen him make some improvements, attacking the net front and showing the aggressiveness that earned him the praise he deserved in his draft season.

With five points in his last four games, Kakko has finally found the scoresheet after being scoreless through the Rangers’ first ten games. His three goals came from in tight around the net and the assists came from him being aggressive on the puck and finding a man in high danger areas for good scoring chances.

When Kakko has confidence and plays his game with the unique blend of skill and physicality, he can be a dangerous two-way force. We’ve seen some evidence of that recently. Kakko needs to be encouraged to use his skill set by carrying the puck and making passes in the neutral zone that lead to controlled zone entries.

If coach Gallant can continue to encourage Kakko to play his game, the young Finn has plenty of time to have his career turn around. Kakko has shown flashes of the potential that earned him the privilege of being selected second overall in 2019. He’s a 20-year-old playing in the world’s best league. Calling him a bust, as some hockey fans and analysts have already, is not only hasty but it’s likely going to look less than intelligent in good time.

Give this kid some time. He has all of the tools and was forced into a role and style of play that wouldn’t have suited any player taken near the top of the draft. Let Kakko be Kakko and we will see the offensive instincts come back to life and his development as a two-way player will make him all the more valuable to a Rangers team that is on the rise. 

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