What’s next for Rangers, Kaapo Kakko after 1-year contract agreement

NHL: New York Rangers at New York Islanders
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers and Kaapo Kakko agreed to terms on a one-year, $2.4 million contract earlier in the week. The 23-year-old forward had little leverage coming off a disappointing 13-goal season and received a slight raise of $300,000.

Neither side was interested in a long-term deal. Really, the one-year agreement made the most sense for each party. The Rangers get to further evaluate Kakko on an affordable contract. And Kakko, who’ll be a restricted free agent again at the end of next season and a UFA following the 2025-26 season, can prove he’s worth a longer-term commitment and raise that would likely double his current salary.

The $2.4 million number was an easy figure to agree on since that was his qualifying offer.

So, good on the Rangers and Kakko getting this done early in the offseason. There’s never a reason to let your easiest pieces of business linger.

But now comes the hard part.

Related: Why K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider set to take on bigger Rangers role together

What’s next for Kaapo Kakko and Rangers

NHL: New York Rangers at Colorado Avalanche
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Rangers coach Peter Laviolette admitted on breakup day that he needs to figure out how to unlock the best in Kakko. He also noted that Kakko must own responsibility for his lack of production, which the Finnish forward clearly did that same day.

So, the biggest question is: where will Kakko play next season? Will he again be given the opportunity to play alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on the top line? That threesome never clicked this past season, but it would be a top-six role that Kakko covets. And, perhaps, similar to Alexis Lafreniere who scored 28 goals this season, he could break out lined up night-in, night-out on a top line.

Or could Laviolette play the role of mad scientist and completely shake up his top three lines? Laviolette could reunite the Kid Line, one that had terrific chemistry in the past and would now feature more mature versions of Kakko, Lafreniere and Filip Chytil. Or would he consider removing Kreider from Zibanejad’s wing and flank No. 93 with Kakko and Lafreniere? Or perhaps Kakko, Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin?

Of course, each move has ramifications for other players. Laviolette was loathe to break up Zibanejad and Kreider this season. And he kept Lafreniere and Panarin together all season, with, first Chytil and then Vincent Trocheck, in the middle.

But if the Rangers really believe in Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, now’s the time to go full-in to find out if he’s ever going to be the player they thought they were drafting. That said, Kakko must earn his opportunity, too, something he vowed to do on breakup day.

Then there’s the option of keeping Kakko on the third line, likely with Chytil in the middle and Will Cuylle or perhaps Brennan Othmann on the other wing. We already know he’s a diligent defensive player, and effective possessing the puck. So, if Kakko can score more, he did have 18 goals two seasons ago, he’d be a steal in a third-line role and would help make the Rangers an even deeper team up front.

There is one other option. Now that there’s cost certainty with Kakko’s contract, he’s easier to trade. It’s an unlikely move by the Rangers since they’d be selling low on him, but it’s also not out of the question if the Rangers include him in a bigger deal for a top-six right wing.

Related: Why Rangers should pass on Patrik Laine trade

Where Rangers stand with salary cap after re-signing Kaapo Kakko

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

By re-signing Kakko, the Rangers now have $10.053 million in projected salary cap space. That is ninth-lowest among all 32 teams in the NHL.

The Rangers still have to re-sign restricted free agent defenseman Braden Schneider, who’s up for a bridge deal likely after finishing off his entry-level contract. Figuring roughly a $2 million contract for Schneider, the Rangers would have around $8 million in cap space and still need to re-sign veteran defenseman Ryan Lindgren, an RFA with arbitration rights due a raise and one year removed from unrestricted free agency.

That’s without figuring out a way to add a top-six right wing and at least one defenseman.

A potential contract extension for Igor Shesterkin, or even Lafreniere, would not affect the 2024-25 salary cap since those extensions would begin the following season.

In their absolute best-case scenario, either Kakko, Othmann or Cuylle emerges as a productive top-six option at an affordable cost next season. But it’s hard to believe the Rangers will bank on that hope in putting the team together this offseason.

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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