Sink or Swim time for Kaapo Kakko in third season with New York Rangers

kaapo kakko injury
May 3, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Kaapo Kakko #24 of the New York Rangers celebrates his goal at 4:35 of the second period against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Bennett/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers are undergoing an accelerated evolutionary step. They are moving quicker into their window of contention signaled by the change in management and the hiring of experienced head coach, Gerard Gallant.

For the superstars and veterans, this is great because they want to win now. For the kids, their safety net that came in the form of John Davidson, Jeff Gorton, and David Quinn is now gone. It is truly sink or swim time for many of them.

The most important young player of them all is Kaapo Kakko. Entering his third season in the NHL, he must take that next step.

Kaapo Kakko in a crucial year for his development

Kaapo Kakko was selected second overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-3 winger is now 20 years of age and at a crucial point in his development. He finished the 2020-21 campaign with 17 points on the strength of 8 goals in 48 games.

Although his numbers don’t stand out, he missed time this season after contracting COVID-19. As a diabetic, this was especially concerning and he admitted it took him awhile to start feeling better after he returned. The biggest issue he complained of was not having his leg strength. For a player that uses his lower body strength to control the boards and quick bursts of speed, it had a negative impact on his numbers.

However, Kakko still ranks first in goals for all players selected in the 2019 Draft with 19 tallies. He also ranks second in points with 40. All the signs are pointing upwards for the big and fast Finn. Of course, one has to consider where Gerard Gallant sees Kakko fitting.

kaapo kakko
Jan 16, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) scores against New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Bennett /POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Gerard Gallant on opportunity and youth

During his introductory press conference, Gallant gave plenty of insight into how he will approach the youth in his lineup. “You give them the opportunity and hopefully they take advantage of the ice time they get,” he said. “I don’t think young players can sit on the fourth line and get a lot out of that. I think young players with a lot of talent iff they’re first, second, or third line hockey players you’ve got to play them.”

At first glance, this sounds like great news for the younger players. The head coach sees no value in playing a young kid on the fourth line if they are a projected top six player. So we can take that as no Vitali Kravtsov on the fourth line from here on out.

However, Gallant followed that statement up with a very revealing comment. “We know we’ve got some very talented young hockey players who on our team and they are going to get every opportunity to play, like we said they’ve got to fit into our program,” the veteran coach explained. “They’ve got to make sure they’re playing every night and they’ve got to make sure they’re deserving of ice time. I see a talented hockey team, so you’ve got to make sure you’re working with that ice time you get.”

Aside from the coach speak of earning and deserving ice time, the key takeaway from Gallant’s comment was fitting into our program. This isn’t about just being a skilled player, it’s about fitting into your role regardless of skill. Assuming Julien Gauthier is still here come training camp, can he change his style of play to be more like Matt Martin on the fourth line? Or do the Rangers already know he can’t and will be bringing in true grinders via trade or free agency?

“It’s a fine line for coaches. You want to develop players, but you also want to win every night,” Gallant began to conclude. “That’s where we’re at right now, so we’re going to try to win a hockey game and hopefully those young players are going to be part of our team winning hockey games every night.” 

Sink or Swim time for Kaapo Kakko

This is going to be a telltale season for Kakko. When asked specifically about the two most important kids on the Rangers, Alexis Lafrenière and Kakko, Gallant had this to say. “Both are young and talented talented players. I watched both of them last season on TV. High-end talent, high-end skill – let’s take it to the next level.”

After heaping praise on them Gallant stated what he wants from them next year. “They both have to work hard, they both have to compete hard and try and get better everyday,” he said. “There’s not going to be any (extra) pressure applied to those kids but go out there and play, and do your job.”

Gallant then spoke about his time with the Florida Panthers and seeing some similarity. He talked about the young kids he coached there like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Aleksander Barkov. “They needed the opportunities to take advantage of it, you can’t rush them too much, and when they deserve more you give them more.”

One thing is for sure, both Lafrenière and Kakko work their tails off. There is no concern with regards to work ethic for either of them. This will be about results, and if Kakko is a top six winger, he will need to start producing like one. He also has some stiff competition in the established Pavel Buchnevich, and rookie Vitali Kravtsov.

This is truly a make or break year for some of the kids. Players like Filip Chytil, Morgan Barron, Gauthier, Kakko, and Kravtsov will have to bring it. Provided they are all still with the Rangers when camp starts in September.

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