Brian Abate The Hockey Writers
Rangers’ Kakko Poised to Perform in the Playoffs
The New York Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko with the second pick of the NHL Draft one year ago. There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding him and that led to big expectations for his rookie season. While the season hasn’t quite gone according to plan for the young winger, he will have an opportunity to silence his doubters in the postseason.
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Kakko is not a lock to play when the NHL resumes because he has diabetes and has to get clearance from the NHL to return as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Still, as of now, he is practicing with the Rangers, which is an encouraging sign.
Kakko Has Had an Inconsistent Season
Kakko has had a streaky regular season, which isn’t surprising, considering he is just 19 years old. He showed flashes of his potential and scored a few impressive goals. The first goal of his NHL career came on a smooth deke against the Edmonton Oilers. He also scored an overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While he showed his offensive potential, Kakko struggled defensively and was inconsistent, which are both fairly common with young players. At times he got caught chasing the puck, which left him out of position. He also got out-muscled by opponents and was knocked off the puck easily.
He tended to score in hot streaks but also had long cold streaks. He had five goals and three assists in eight games from late October to early November. He then scored just two goals over a stretch of 48 games. He was on the verge of breaking out of that funk with a two-goal performance against the Dallas Stars when the season was suspended. He has 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games.
Kakko was expected to be a candidate for the Calder Trophy this season. That has not happened but it does not make his rookie season a failure and he will have an opportunity to deliver in the postseason.
Rangers Should Expect Better Play from Kakko in the Playoffs
The time off since the season was suspended should help Kakko. As a rookie, he is not used to the rigors of an NHL season and he hit a wall. The time off should have given him an opportunity to rest and prepare himself for the season’s return.
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In addition to that, Kakko now has some experience playing in the NHL and should know what to expect. The Rangers are scheduled to play their first game against the Carolina Hurricanes on August 1, more than four months after their last game. That is essentially an offseason, which has given the young forward plenty of time to rest and then work on improving.
Kakko went into slumps after he missed time because of an illness and after he injured his foot blocking a shot. He should be 100 percent recovered from both of those ailments when play resumes.
Kakko Has Played Well Under Pressure
While Kakko is just beginning his NHL career, he has plenty of experience playing in Finland, as well as representing the country in international competitions. Last season with TPS Turku of the Finnish Elite League, he had 22 goals and 16 assists in 45 regular season games. He took his game to another level in the playoffs, finishing with four goals and an assist in five games. He scored multiple goals in clutch moments, showcasing his potential.
Kakko has had success representing Finland internationally. Two seasons ago he finished with four goals and six assists in seven games at the U18 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. He led Finland to a gold medal.
He excelled in the 2019 IIHF World Championship despite playing against men. Kakko finished with six goals and an assist in 10 games, including highlight-reel goals against Slovakia and Canada. He once again helped lead Finland to a gold medal.
Last season, Kakko also played well in the U20 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships even though he was younger than most players. He played well all tournament but had his best performance against the United States in the gold medal game. With the game tied at two and 1:26 remaining in the third period, he slipped in behind the United States defense. He then controlled a rebound after a shot from the point and lifted the puck into the back of the net. His goal propelled Finland to a gold medal.
Kakko has repeatedly proven he is a winner and has no problem producing offensively when the pressure is at its highest. If he is able return for the postseason he could still make a difference for the Rangers even though his regular season has been a bit disappointing.
Right now the biggest question surrounding Kakko is whether or not he will play in the postseason. He will have to decide to play and he will need to be cleared by the NHL’s doctors.
If he does play, I believe he will be an effective player, while gaining valuable postseason experience. He has been extremely clutch while representing Finland, and the postseason will serve as an opportunity for him to do the same with the Rangers.
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