Saturday, October 23, 2021

Kaapo Kakko Rangers progress has yet to match the grand hype

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The facts, and nothing but the facts, are these:

Kaapo Kakko, quite famously selected second-overall by the Rangers after the Devils went with Jack Hughes, leads the Draft Class of 2019 in games played with 74, four more than the New Jersey teenager.

That’s 10 more than Chicago’s third-overall selection, Kirby Dach, who is out for the season with the broken wrist he sustained at the World Junior Tournament — there but for the grace… — after playing in 64 contests for the Blackhawks last year.

None of the other young men selected in that draft have played more than the 13 games in which Vancouver’s 40th-overall winger, Nils Hoglander, have appeared this year. Next? Buffalo’s ninth-overall Dylan Cozens, with nine games of experience.

Kakko, who will turn 20 on Feb.

24 is second in points with 25, trailing Hughes by four while leading Dach by three.

So, putting this in some perspective, to borrow a phrase that is endemic in the sports world, Kakko is pretty much where he should be entering Thursday’s Garden match against the Caps.

But he is most decidedly not where anyone around New York — and probably not in Turku, Finland, from where he hails — wants or thinks he should be.

He was, after all, advertised as NHL-ready. He was, after all, advertised as ready to make a difference in the NHL

So the perception is that Kakko is way behind schedule.

Kaapo Kakko was the NHL-ready No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.Anthony J. Causi

The challenge for the Rangers, their management and the coaching staff, is not to mistake perception for reality.

And David Quinn addressed that issue Thursday morning, hours before Kakko was set to return to the lineup after he had been placed on the COVID-restricted list for Monday’s victory over the Penguins.

He’s gotten better and better,” the coach said of Kakko, who has two points (2-0) in eight games. “What we have to do as a staff, and everybody has to do is stop comparing him to where we want him to be — the ultimate player.

see also

Kaapo Kakko-Jack Hughes rivalry will be different this time

It wasn’t so much hype as a sense of anticipation….

“We have a vision of what we think Kaapo Kakko is going to look like. He’s 19 years old. Our job is to continue to monitor him and make sure he’s getting better. And he’s doing it.”

Kakko is better in paying attention to detail. He has been more diligent in his work off the puck and in the defensive zone. That is reflected by a fairly dramatic improvement in his peripherals, albeit in a very small sample size.

The winger’s Corsi is 53.89 percent as opposed to his rookie mark of 43.62. His on-ice shot share is 57.14 as opposed to 43.76. He’s been on for three goals for and three against as compared to last year’s hellacious 16 for and 40 against. Kakko’s xGF is 48.73 vs. last season’s 39.29. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.

Clearly, there has been improvement, accomplished while Kakko has bounced from one line to another — as, by the way, has just about everybody on the team.

But here’s what has been missing, at least to these experienced (or old, take your pick) eyes: the ability to do something special and bring folks out of their seats.

Now, Hughes is taking a big step, a much bigger one than Kakko. There is never mistaking the New Jersey center’s high-end potential. That is not something you can say for New York’s winger.

Of course, Kakko has and has had more challenges in front of him than Hughes has encountered. There is the language, the culture and the transformation to the NHL ice surface from the larger rinks in Europe. Kakko does not get the middle of the ice nearly often enough.

If the Rangers are to be second-guessed in their handling of young players, it is foolish to second-guess the decision to bring Kakko over immediately last year. Delaying would only have delayed the transition process. Quite clearly, that cannot be accelerated in this case.

So into the fray go the Rangers against the Caps on Thursday with Kakko as either the second-most productive player among the Class of ’19, or a faintly disappointing work in progress.

Of course, two things can be true at one time.


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