Kaapo Kakko’s future with Rangers big question heading into offseason

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes
James Guillory-USA TODAY SportsCredit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Kaapo Kakko and the New York Rangers are coming upon a critical juncture in their relationship. The 23-year-old forward is a restricted free agent July 1, coming off a disappointing season, part of an uneven tenure on Broadway since being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

So, do the two sides work out another bridge deal with a modest raise from the expiring two-year, $4.2 million contract, since a long-term deal doesn’t make sense for either party? Or does Kakko sign a one-year “prove-it” contract? Or do the Rangers explore trading the forward, who has 57 goals and 60 assists in 300 NHL games?

Kakko scored 13 goals and 19 points in 61 regular-season games. He missed 21 games with a lower-body injury early in the season, which most definitely didn’t help his production. More concerning, Kakko scored just one goal and finished with two points in 15 postseason games, and was scratched in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers.

“I was not happy not being in the lineup,” Kakko told reporters on breakup day Tuesday, choosing his words carefully. “All the guys in this room, everyone wants to play.”

Kakko also brought up a familiar issue for him, that of ice time, “some games under 10 minutes, it’s hard to do something with that” during the season. He received an average of 13:16 in ice time per game this season, the lowest of his five NHL seasons, and two minutes less than 2022-23 when he scored an NHL career-high 18 goals and 40 points.

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan told Forever Blueshirts this week that his playing time in New York is a big problem for Kakko.

“This is a really confident kid,” Kaplan explained. “He was told from a very young age that he was special. From a very young age, he was identified like ‘you’re going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft’ or the No. 2 pick, where he ended up going.

“I think sometimes when you talk to him, ask him questions, he’ll kind of sneak in there ‘if I got more ice time or if I got top minutes.'”

So, there’s a rub between Kakko and the Rangers. The flip side is, the Rangers haven’t received the expected production from Kakko, who’s analytics stack up well but don’t coincide with the puck ending up in the net.

WATCH: Emily Kaplan breaks down the top Rangers storylines in exclusive interview

Rangers could trade Kaapo Kakko instead of re-signing him

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At breakup day, Kakko took a mature approach to his situation. He acknowledged the opportunity coach Peter Laviolette gave him on the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, to start the season and again in February, and at times during the playoffs. And he also acknowledge that it didn’t go well, meaning he spent most of the season as a reliable two-way player on the third line.

“I got the chance, first line with Mika and ‘Kreids,’ so I can’t say I never get the chance,” Kakko explained. “I’m not saying that wasn’t a good line but it just never worked out … all those games we played together, it just never work out that well. If you’re playing those minutes, you have to score some goals. That line, we never scored that much.”

There are many right wings that have failed to create chemistry for one reason or another with Zibanejad and Kreider. But if Kaako, who views himself as top-six forward, can’t gain traction on that line, and Alexis Lafreniere is entrenched with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, it’s either the third line or a trade for Kakko.

“You have to remember at this time last year teams were calling the Rangers about Lafreniere and they were like, ‘No, he’s untouchable,’ and I know some teams were surprised by that … obviously it panned out,” Kaplan explained. “I think that was a similar situation to Kakko at this year’s trade deadline. I was told Chris Drury wanted nothing to do with trading him. He wanted to show that patience.”

However, Kaplan believes the Rangers are open to at least listening on trade offers for Kakko now, though he professes to want to stay in New York.

“We’ll see. All the things over here, I like it,” Kakko said.

For his part, Laviolette took his share of responsibility with things not going as planned with Kakko this season.

“In my conversation with Kaapo, I took my responsibility. As a coach, I didn’t find it with him,” Laviolette said Tuesday. “I think he’s a good player and we were all hoping he would take another step.

“My responsibility as coach is to unleash these players. You hope it happens with all of them, but with some it doesn’t and I have to figure out a better way to get him involved. There’s responsibility on him, too, what he brings to the table and what he brings to the game.”

It all shapes up to be an interesting summer and absolutely critical one in the relationship between the Rangers and Kakko.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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