Kakko’s confidence is starting to come through and so are the goals

Kakko (Getty Images)

Kaapo Kakko came into this season with all the hype and fanfare no other Rangers draft pick has ever experienced. His overtime goal in Traverse City dropped some jaws as to the offensive potential this young kid would bring to NY. That hype grew when he scored a gorgeous goal in just his 3rd NHL game. His next 11 games would sadly only see 4 points spread over 3 games (2g, 2a).

Early Struggles

The 18 year old phenom was certainly having a rough go of it this season. He was bounced around lines and the Rangers had to bring in Tuomo Ruutu to help him adjust to North American life. We often lose sight that Kakko is just a kid from a small country trying to adjust to life away from home, which is harder than adjusting to rink sizes.

All of this was very obvious on the ice, as the kid was visibly frustrated. Things started to come to a head in a 3-2 OT loss against the Coyotes on 10/22 where he received a season low 9:51 of ice time. It got worse over the next two games where he was a combined -6 in those contests.

Then something changed.

All About the Swagger

On October 29th, the Rangers first game without Mika Zibanejad, Kaapo Kakko and his fellow Baby Blueshirts, Filip Chytil and Adam Fox beat the talented Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1. Kaapo Kakko scored a power play goal in that contest and has had a swagger in his game ever since. In Kakko’s last 7 games he has 6 points including 5 goals, 3 of them in his last 2 games.

“Just talking to him, the way he walks around, there’s just a whole new level of swagger to him that I hadn’t seen since he got here — not only on the ice, but off the ice,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “There’s a comfort level I think that he’s attaining, and you can see his face. There’s a lot more smiling and a lot more swagger.”

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Letting the stallion run

So why the new found confidence? In not so many words, David Quinn admitted that he and his staff might have been over-coaching him. Quinn informed reporters that over 2 weeks ago (right around the Tampa game), he told Kakko he was only going to say hello to him. His objective was to let the kid play his game, and it seems to be working.

The approach seems to have eased pressure on the Rangers highest draft pick in history. Kakko is looking more confident handling the puck and has started driving to the net a lot more than he did in October. His play on the power play has been rock solid, with the only criticism being the need to shoot more. Of course, when you see Artemiy Panarin on the other side, passing seems like a good idea.

Looking ahead

While his slow start may have raised doubts about winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, his recent play raises hope. He currently has 8 points in 16 games, just one point less than #1 pick Jack Hughes. However the real threat to the award is Colorado defenseman Cale Makar with 18 points in 18 games.

Makar is 21 years old and besides his age and NCAA experience is on a better team. An additional advantage to him winning the trophy is that he is a defenseman, and high scoring blue-liners will always raise eyebrows. Still, if Kakko can pick up the goal scoring pace and throw in some assists he may get just enough votes to win it. If he does, he will be the first Ranger to claim the hardware since Brian Leetch in 1989.