Rangers’ top line better, but not good enough after Kaapo Kakko’s return

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers are certainly in the middle of a prolonged slump as they look to snap a two-game losing streak facing the Anaheim Ducks on the road this Sunday night.

Kaapo Kakko finally returned to the Rangers’ lineup after missing 21 games with a lower-body injury, and his positive impact was immediately felt by the team when they beat the Seattle Kraken last Tuesday. Since he’s been back (four games), Kakko has already scored a goal, after only scoring two in the previous 21 games he played.

Kakko’s impact expands further than just his individual stats when he is in the lineup. The team around him seems to play better, and it’s proven by the fact the Rangers are 16-3-1 with the young Finn dresses, and an eyebrow raising 11-10-1 without him. After Tuesday’s matchup against Seattle, it appears that he may be the answer to the top-line right-wing role alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.

Related: Isles hire Patrick Roy to bring extra sizzle to rivalry

Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad’s ineffective 5-on-5 play

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Kreider and Zibanejad’s 5-on-5 play has been abysmal as of late, especially after the turning point of the new year. As soon as Kakko gets added to the line, they each get a 5v5 point on a nice shot from Kakko during the Seattle game.

For the Rangers’ as a whole, it is crucial to have the top line rolling at even-strength, and for the first time since the new year, Kreider and Zibanejad’s 5-on-5 stats stood out in their tilt versus Seattle.

In that 5-2 Rangers’ win at the Garden, Kreider and Zibanejad led all Rangers in expected goals. According to Moneypuck.com, Zibanejad especially shined with a game-high 0.45 expected goals at 5v5 for the Rangers. Kreider was second on the team with 0.24, and this is in stark contrast to previous matchups in which the duo was not only invisible to the eye-test but on the analytics sheet as well.

For example, in the Rangers’ home-and-home series against the Washington Capitals last weekend, neither forward eclipsed even 0.05 goals for at 5-on-5. Zibanejad even had a flat zero in expected goals for in the Rangers’ 2-1 win over Washington last Sunday.

Those stats are alarming from your top guys, and this unfortunate trend continued for Zibanejad especially as the Rangers started their western road trip this week. Zibanejad’s expected goals for both games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings did not even eclipse 0.05 at even strength, which is simply unacceptable from your first line center. Kreider on the other hand seems to be riding the boost that Kakko brings to the line, after finally scoring 5-on-5 in last night’s 2-1 loss to the Kings. Kreider also led the Rangers in expected goals in both of their games during the western road trip so far. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the Rangers, expected goals are not actual goals, and nobody can seem to put it together at the moment.

Line combinations at 5v5

With the roster makeup the way it is, there are not many options for repairing a desperately dry top-line, and the stats show that having Kakko at right-wing is the best current option. For example, the combination of Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko this season touts a nice 53.3% in expected goals for at 5v5, vastly more than when 37-year-old Blake Wheeler is the right-wing on that line. When Wheeler slots in, that line is at a lowly 45.3% expected goals for which is a shocking statistic for those invested in advanced analytics.

The Rangers will need more than just the Panarin-Trocheck-Lafreniere line to produce, which, minus the Seattle game, has been the only line that truly was a threat to produce night in and night out. The Rangers seem to have a complete inability to produce at even stregnth consistently, and this is becoming a glaring issue as the power play has gone ice cold. Seeing Kreider use his speed more to his advantage, or Zibanejad’s excellent shooting and passing ability along side a versatile Kakko is exactly what the Rangers’ need consistently going forward to win.