Kaapo Kakko earns ‘pop up to’ Rangers top line

NHL: New York Rangers at Chicago Blackhawks
Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

Kaapo Kakko will get his wish to play on the top line, when the New York Rangers host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. And coach Peter Laviolette said Kakko earned this opportunity.

“I think he’s earned a pop up there to see what he can do,” Laviolette explained. “He’s been there before and he’s a player who has the potential and possibility of being there.”

Kakko has played before alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, to mixed results. He skated on that line earlier in the season before a 21-game injury absence took him out of the mix.

Since returning, the 23-year-old has skated almost exclusively on an effective third line with Jonny Brodzinski and Will Cuylle. Kakko has four goals and seven points in his past 12 games, and seven goals and 11 points in 38 games this season.

But he’s longed for the chance to move back up the lineup. And he now will get it.

Related: Updated New York Rangers trade board ahead of 2024 deadline

Kaapo Kakko can expect more responsibility, minutes with the Rangers

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

“This is an opportunity with Kaapo, I think he’s played well. He’s generated some offense and some goals,” Laviolette explained. “To move him up is a little bit more responsibility and a little bit more minutes for him.”

Kakko has played as many as 14 minutes once since Jan. 21. His season high in ice time was 17:58 against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 30.

When Blake Wheeler sustained a season-ending lower-body injury Feb. 15, Laviolette decided to move Jimmy Vesey up and insert Matt Rempe on to the fourth line. Part of the reasoning was to keep the third line intact since it was playing so well.

If Kakko can be successful playing with Zibanejad and Kreider, it could alter New York’s plans ahead of the March 8 trade deadline. Instead of focusing their efforts on acquiring a top-line right wing, they could consider less costly options like filling bottom-six roles at center and right wing.

This will also be an important stretch for Kakko because he’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Producing on the top line now and during the Stanley Cup Playoffs could land him a fatter contract.

Conversely, if that line doesn’t take off with Kakko a part of it, it will raise more questions than answers about the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Kakko had an NHL career-high 18 goals and 40 points playing all 82 games last season.

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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