Kaapo Kakko survived NHL Draft, but his future with Rangers still up in the air

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a week of heavy speculation leading up to the 2024 NHL Draft, the New York Rangers did not part with winger Kaapo Kakko, who was rumored to be on the trade block if the Blueshirts wished to trade up in the first round. But that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear.

“I’m pretty sure they’re still dangling Kaapo Kakko and will pursue deals to possibly move him this summer,” Vince Mercogliano of USA Today said on his podcast New Ice City this Wednesday. “I think they’re not thrilled with the offers they’ve gotten so far, which is why he’s still on the roster.”

The Rangers decided to keep the No. 30 overall pick in the first round last Friday, selecting 18-year-old defenseman EJ Emery.

It’s not entirely clear whether the Rangers held on to Kakko because they valued Emery with the No. 30 pick, or because they weren’t impressed with the value of the trade offers. Mercogliano seems to insinuate the latter. The fact that the former No. 2 overall pick continues to get dangled might indicate that holding on to him at the draft wasn’t necessarily a vote of confidence.

Related: 10 must-see games on Rangers 2024-25 schedule

Rangers ‘kinda need’ Kaapo Kakko now

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

Kakko remains one of the easiest pieces on the roster to trade, signed to an affordable one-year, $2.4 million contract and not eligible to become an unrestricted free agent until after the 2025-26 season. Expendable players that can be easily moved are few and far between on this Rangers roster, particularly as Jacob Trouba’s far more difficult situation continues to unfold in an ugly manner.

Nonetheless, surviving the draft was a massive hurdle for Kakko to clear. And given the way that the free agent frenzy unfolded for New York, the Blueshirts might need Kakko on the roster when the season starts, perhaps even getting another shot on the right side of Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

The Rangers did not sign a wing in free agency, many of whom landed expensive contracts in the open market. Instead, the Blueshirts acquired Reilly Smith in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 33-year-old, a 2023 Stanley Cup champion with the Vegas Golden Knights, should settle into a top-six role, but he’s not going to generate the same level of hype or excitement that some of the high-end free agent options would have.

Kakko likely best slots in at right wing on the third line. With most of the name-value right wing options off the table, at least in terms of free agency, outside of Vladimir Tarasenko and Daniel Sprong, it’s far from a guarantee that there’s a better third-line option out there than Kakko, especially with his low-cost contract.

“They’re probably sitting there and saying, ‘OK, we’re not necessarily gonna rush to trade Kakko right now’ because as it looks right now, given the lineup, they kinda need him,” Mercogliano added. “I still think it’s a possibility he gets traded, but I think the window that they would’ve liked to have done it was over the weekend during the draft or certainly before noon on Monday when free agency opened.”

Unless a trade involving Kakko brings back a right wing in return, it leaves the Rangers with an important hole on the right side. And while he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick, it’s far from a certainty that the Rangers can find a suitable replacement at or below his cap hit of $2.4 million AAV.

If general manager Chris Drury is indeed set on moving on from the 23-year-old, then perhaps he does so simply to open up a spot for an internal solution like Brennan Othmann or Brett Berard. It’s worth noting that after starting at his natural left wing position with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL last season, Othmann moved over to right wing for the second half of the season. He finished second on the Wolf Pack with 21 goals, four behind Berard.

But that’s banking on one of them to have a strong training camp and impress enough to earn an everyday role in the NHL, a big roll of the dice for a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations. Say what you will about Kakko, but he has proven the ability to be an NHL regular.

Given all the trade rumors surrounding him, it’s not a dream secenario for Kakko to return to if he does indeed survive the summer, particularly as he prepares for what would be a make-or-break season in New York.

He’s made it this far, but there’s still a long way to go before the season starts back up in October. And considering the way Drury has attempted to move on from NHL veterans like Trouba and Barclay Goodrow, it’s hard to rule anything out.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

Mentioned in this article:

More About: