Kaapo Kakko emerging as a defensive gem for Rangers
Defensively responsible forwards are not sexy. The casual fan is not getting up in the morning and watching Sean Couturier zone exit montages on YouTube. That being said they are extremely important to a team. There’s an award at the end of the season dedicated to this role known as the Selke Trophy. It’s an award that Kaapo Kakko may see his name etched on one day.
The role of a big-body defensive forward was not something Rangers fans envisioned when the Blueshirts drafted the Finn second overall back in 2019. In fact, after his first full season in the League, you could argue his defense was subpar at times.
Fast forward two seasons after playing a lot of bottom six minutes and Kakko has developed a bit of an edge defensively. Kakko’s expected goals against per 60 a season ago ranked 27th among forwards that logged at least 1000 minutes. This puts him in a category with excellent defensive forwards like Mitch Marner and Nico Hischier, as well as being ahead of guys like Phillip Danault and Jordan Martinook.
“The thing I’m noticing more and more with Kakko is, they’re starting to give him more responsibility in defensive situations,” reporter Vince Mercogliano told Forever Blueshirts on Thursday. “The last two seasons, he’s graded out as one of the Rangers better defensive forwards.”
Kaapo Kakko emerging as a complete player
A defensive first forward is a far cry from what Rangers fans expected Kakko to be when he entered the NHL, but the reality is, he’s one of the best on the team. According to the site Evolving Hockey, Kakko ended last season in the 72nd percentile when it came to defense among forwards. That ranked third on the Rangers roster behind Chris Kreider and Jimmy Vesey. This poses an interesting question for new Rangers coach Peter Laviolette for the upcoming season. When needed, who becomes your shutdown/checking line?
“Laviolette wants to do that [build a shutdown/checking line],” Mercogliano said, referencing a conversation with the new bench boss earlier in the week. “You’ve seen Vincent Trocheck playing there quite a bit and I think they’re going to value him taking important defensive zone faceoffs. He was over 56% last year, by far the best on the team, and who are you going to surround him with? Well, they’ve had Kakko in that spot.”
While Kakko’s defensive numbers have been impressive in his young career, his offensive game has left much to be desired. Of the 15 players who were drafted in 2019 and have played at least 100 games in the NHL, Kakko is sixth in goals, seventh in assists, and fifth in points. He has also played the second most games among those players, only behind the man picked before him, Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils. Kakko’s 0.41 points per game ranks him 10th of 15.
“The reason he was drafted where he was drafted was because of the offensive upside,” Mercogliano said. “Laviolette was raving the other day about Kakko’s unique ability to hold the puck down low in difficult situations where you’re being swarmed by defenders.”
This is what makes the story of Kakko’s time in the NHL so frustrating. The physical tools have always been there since day one. When the Rangers drafted him, it was widely recognized that he was the most NHL-ready of the bunch and it has yet to pan out that way offensively.
What is encouraging to hear is it sounds like the Rangers are trying Kakko in front of the net for the power play. With his big frame and tutelage from one of the best net front men in the League in Chris Kreider, we may see a side of Kakko’s offense that has been hiding in the wings up until this point.
There’s a lot of signs pointing to a breakout season for Kakko, as NHL Network Analyst Mike Rupp explained to us prior to the opening of training camp.
“Coaches want to know that guys can hold onto pucks, get in there on the forecheck and compete and these are all areas where he thrives,” Rupp explained. “His underlying numbers are actually fantastic in those categories so he’s going to get an opportunity. I also think Peter Laviolette is going to love him and what he brings which will solidify those opportunities.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s pushing high 20s, possibly 30 goals this year. I’m excited to watch him play because I think it’s his time to shine now.”
The Rangers are in a spot where they can surprise many and compete for a Metropolitan Division title this season, but that does not happen without some major offensive development from the “Kids” starting with Kakko.
“It’s a new season and I’m ready to go again,” Kakko said after scoring a goal on his first shot of the preseason on Tuesday. “For me when I get those pucks close to the net I need to shoot more. Anytime you score a goal it feels good.”
Frankly, I’m sick of writing about the what-ifs. It’s time for these players like Kakko to take over. While it’s nice to see him work on things in camp, everyone is eager to see what he’ll when the puck drops for real.