Covering Kaapo Kakko: An Inside Look
Kaapo Kakko is the future of the New York Rangers for the next decade. When he was selected 2nd overall in the 2019 draft by the Blueshirts the excitement from Vancouver to New York was felt like a thunderbolt by every Rangers fan.
Pasi Tuominen was assigned to cover Kaapo Kakko for the Finnish publication East Side Media. He has been with Kakko since day 1 and here’s an inside look into covering the Finnish Force.
1. You’ve been covering Kaapo Kakko since training camp, what do you think are the biggest differences in his game today versus back in September?
I think the biggest differences so far are the mental ones. After excelling in the Finnish Liiga with TPS Turku and winning everything with Team Finland, he came to the USA brimming with confidence. Early on he even showed some slight arrogance with comments like “I’ve played big games before” but pretty soon he realized he’s still learning. I’ve seen a humbler version of Kaapo in recent weeks. But don’t get me wrong: he’s not going to be a doormat anytime soon.
As for his game, I think he’s getting rid of schoolboy mistakes. In a smaller rink, faster pace and tougher physical environment he made a lot of those in the preseason and early NHL games. Now he knows better how to give and take hits. Plus, he knows when to go easy with stickhandling and protect the puck instead.
2. You’re one of the few reporters who interviews Kakko in his native Finnish, does he light up and feel looser talking to you versus the English-speaking reporters?
Definitely. Like any 18-year-old kid who has lived his whole life in Europe, he speaks limited English. But he’s not a reserved person, very much to the contrary. Kaapo is an easy-going guy and loves to joke. Often he answers to questions in length, too. He’s got that bad-boy, cool-kid-in-the-class feel, and I like it.
3. It’s well documented that Kakko misses home and not having any Finnish players on the team makes it harder, has he expressed how he copes with that? Has he said he’d like to have a Finnish teammate?
Well, it’s clear he wouldn’t mind some Finnish company. During training camp, he roomed with fellow Finn Tarmo Reunanen and obviously enjoyed it (by the way, Reunanen didn’t make the cut and is doing well with Lukko Rauma in the Liiga now). In addition, (Assistant Director of Player Development) Tuomo Ruutu has spent some time in New York helping Kaapo and other younger players.
Being away from his Finnish-speaking family members and friends is an essential part of Kaapo’s learning process. Early Finnish NHLers like Jari Kurri had to make do without much support from Finnish-speakers, and after rocky starts they turned out fine; so will Kaapo, but there will be growing pains.
4. Heading into the 2nd half of the season, do you expect to see a more confident player?
Yes, but it won’t happen overnight. He’s got natural self-confidence, but on the other hand, he’s very hard on himself. Like everybody else, he needs to earn success through hard work. Tenacity will lead to results – goals and assists in his case – and feed his confidence. Although Kaapo has had some really bad spells, he’s doing so many small things right. It’s a small wonder he only had 16 points going into the All-Star break.
5. What would you like to see Kakko do more of when he’s on the ice?
Since Kaapo is a goal scorer by nature and wants to be a game winner in the NHL, he needs to shoot more. I believe it has been obvious to many an observer. However, the low number of shots on goal is strongly linked to his confidence, or lack thereof. A game changer must be selfish to a certain extent, while not taking anything away from his teammates.
Also: defensive awareness. You can’t write that off in today’s NHL, whatever your role is. Some young players have had to “learn” to back-check later on in their NHL careers; that I think is the main reason for the uneven progress of Kaapo’s countryman Patrik Laine, for instance. While it’s still early days for Kakko, he might as well learn the defensive stuff right away. Overall development will be gradual, but the work will certainly pay off in the end.
All in all, if the Rangers trade some forwards at the deadline, Kakko will get more responsibility in the top six and on the power play. And as soon as he regains his own confidence level, fasten your seat belts, people.
Pasi Tuominen, Finnish sports writer, based in New York, has covered the NHL in the USA for 8 years.
Founder of production company East Side Media (company registered in Finland)