New York Rangers must give Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov big minutes

The New York Rangers don’t have much choice next season. After letting Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano walk via free agency, they need to give both Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov big minutes at right wing.

That doesn’t mean they’ll each get top six minutes or power play time, but the Rangers need to know what they really have in these talented wingers.

While it’s true that head coach Gerard Gallant is paid to win games next season, that’s an oversimplification. The big picture in a salary cap world dictates a team plan ahead to figure out how to win games in the future as well.

A Critical Season for the New York Rangers

The Rangers roster, like many other teams in the NHL, will have a bit of a different look in 2022-23.

Now that trade deadline acquisition Frank Vatrano is gone, the top line will likely have one of last season’s left wings making a switch to the right. Alexis Lafrenière scored 19 goals playing primarily third-line LW minutes. The first overall pick in the 2020 Draft is ready for an opportunity to move up. He will either make the move to the right in order to play with Mika Zibanejad, or we may see the veteran Chris Kreider slide over.

The second line lost both Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp to free agency this summer. Chris Drury, reportedly did not offer either of them contracts at the end of the year and went hard after Carolina Hurricanes center Vincent Trocheck. By giving the 29 year-old center a 7-year deal at $5.625 million per season, he sent a clear signal of how he’s beefing up for the next post season run.

Trocheck’s style of play is in stark contrast to Strome’s. The latter was a more east-west type player and better suited to Artemi Panarin’s style of play. That’s why we could actually see Lafrenière stay on LW with Trocheck and the Breadman line up with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider to form one of the most potent lines in the NHL in 2022-23.

So who should the Rangers put on the right wing with Lafrenière and Trocheck to complete the second line?

It’s Kaapo Kakko’s time to shine

KAAPO KAKKO
Dec 12, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) skates between New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) and New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Kaapo Kakko had a really difficult 2021-22 season simply trying to stay on the ice. He missed 39 games due to three separate injuries but posted 18 points in the 43 matches.

The 21 year-old, whom the New York Rangers selected second overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft finished with 5 points in 19 playoff contests. Although those aren’t big numbers, Kakko played a complete game and was strong on both sides of the puck. There’s no doubt the big Finn impressed in the first playoffs of his NHL career.

Despite being scratched for the final game of the Eastern Conference Final, Kakko didn’t pout.

“I like to play here,” Kakko said. “I think [the scratch] gives me more motivation. I want to show I’m better than that. You should put me in the lineup because I’m a good player.”

The Rangers think so too.

Kakko recently signed a two-year deal with an AAV of $2.1 million per season and will be given a huge opportunity. The time is now to place him on either of the top two lines to see what he can do playing around 18 minutes a night.

Vitali Kravtsov needs a long look

vitali kravtsov
Apr 6, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Vitali Kravtsov #74 of the New York Rangers is checked by Marcus Pettersson #28 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at Madison Square Garden on April 06, 2021 in New York City. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Bennett/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for Vitali Kravtsov to show he’s ready for the NHL after a few tumultuous years in the Rangers system. The issues between the former first-round pick, 9th overall, in the 2018 NHL Draft and the organization are well documented. Kravtsov bolted twice for Russia after failing to make the team out of camp, feeling he deserved to be in the lineup.

Kravtsov has a lot of pressure coming into this season to prove he was right and there couldn’t be a better time for him to do it.

Salary cap issues have forced the Rangers to rely on younger, cheaper talent. Kravtsov signed a one-year extension for $875,000 this summer and should play a prominent role on the team’s third-line. The fact that his new deal is a one-way contract and requires him having to pass through waivers to be sent down. That should mean he’ll get more runway than a young player who is waivers exempt.

Kravtsov, 22, had a strong 2021-22 campaign in the KHL. In 19 regular season contests, he potted 6 goals and 7 assists for 13 points. During the playoffs, he added 7 goals and a total of 10 points in 15 games.

Having played 20 games for the Rangers at the tail-end of the 2020-21 season, he scored two goals and added two assists. That experience will be beneficial for both Kravtsov and the Blueshirts as well this year.

“I don’t think we’ve ever wavered from our stance of, he’s an all-world talent. He does a lot of things on the ice that a lot of people can’t,” GM Chris Drury said. “Like everyone else, your play dictates where you end up. But we’re certainly glad to have him back in the mix.”

One thing I can’t stress enough to close this story is that the Rangers can’t shift Lafrenière to the right wing and then have Kravtsov play on either of the top two lines. Placing Kakko on the third line after he’s paid his dues for three seasons to get this opportunity would be a huge mistake.

The Rangers need to see what they have in Kravtsov, and maybe even build up his trade value for deadline. They just can’t do it at the expense of Kakko, who has done everything the organization has asked with little to no complaining for three years.

Considering how close the next wave of prospects like Brennan Othmann, Will Cuylle, and Nils Lundkvist are to making their marks, it would send a bad message throughout the organization.

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