Why Rangers should not force Kaapo Kakko trade in offseason

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

Kaapo Kakko’s future with the New York Rangers is in question after a disappointing 2023-24 season and a postseason in which he was scratched in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final and scored only one goal in 15 games.

Kakko had 13 goals, the second-highest mark of his career behind his 18 the season prior, but managed just 19 points in 61 games, the lowest point-per-game rate of his five-year career.

A scary lower-body injury that sidelined him for 21 games certainly didn’t help matters.

With Kakko needing a new contract as a restricted free agent this offseason, the Rangers will have to decide whether they re-up with the 2019 No. 2 overall pick or trade him away.

There’s no beating around the bush — Kakko hasn’t produced anywhere close to the expectations from when he was drafted. His numbers pale in comparison to NHL All-Star Jack Hughes, who was taken first overall the pick before him, though they are, of course, different players.

Still, there’s value that Kakko can provide, even in a bottom-six role, and perhaps more he can achieve as well.

It’s not to say that the Rangers shouldn’t listen to offers or consider him “off-limits,” but rather that it’s not a negative if Kakko remains on the roster for next season.

Related: Chris Drury doesn’t say much about his plans but must address these 3 key issues

Assessing Kaapo Kakko’s value to Rangers

Kakko has developed a reputation as an analytics darling who fails to translate those positive metrics into on-ice production. He’s excellent at puck possession, particularly in the offensive zone, and responsible defensively, but he simply hasn’t developed the scoring touch one would expect from a top pick.

There is value in the aspects of his game that he does well. Say what you will about analytics, but Kakko, Will Cuylle, and Alex Wennberg led all lines for the Rangers this postseason with a 68.6 xGF%, which ranked 16th across all offensive lines in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kakko’s puck possession translates to the Rangers holding the puck more, something they struggled to do during the Eastern Conference Final as they were outclassed by the Florida Panthers in all on-ice areas sans goaltending.

It might be worth one more look next season to see if it starts translating to actual goals. Especially on a one-year prove-it contract with a modest raise from his recent $2.1 average annual value.

Kakko started this past season on the top line next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. That line struggled as a whole early and Kakko was bumped down in favor of Blake Wheeler, who also struggled in that spot. Midseason trade acquisition Jack Roslovic ultimately gave the best look on that top line, but his actual production was limited as well, tallying 16 points across 35 regular-season and postseason games.

“I got the chance, first line with Mika and ‘Kreids,’ so I can’t say I never get the chance,” Kakko explained Tuesday at breakup day. “I’m not saying that wasn’t a good line but it just never worked out … all those games we played together, it just never work out that well. If you’re playing those minutes, you have to score some goals. That line, we never scored that much.”

With Cuylle and Wennberg, after the latter was acquired prior to the trade deadline, the trio out-chanced teams consistently in both the regular season and playoffs, but managed just five goals in 29 games.

Kakko’s six assists this season were the lowest of his career. He’ll have to take accountability for his own production, but those numbers could take a leap on a more dynamic line.

Filip Chytil returned during the postseason and played wing, but it took a little time for him to find his footing after six months without game action. The plan is for him to play center next season. With Vincent Trocheck and Zibanejad under contract, Chytil likely centers the third line. Health will always be a big “if” but a healthy Chytil on that line would make it more dangerous offensively. And that should benefit Kakko, who has a history playing with Chytil.

Wennberg averaged well below a shot per game with just 23 in his 35 regular-season and postseason games with the Rangers. Meanwhile, Cuylle’s offensive game is still developing after one full NHL season in the NHL. Chytil adds a legitimate scoring option the line never had this year.

Admittedly, it’s hard to complain about Kakko not getting run with legitimate scoring options when he logged 18 games next to Zibanejad and Kreider. But is Kakko entirely to blame for that line’s spotty production at five-on-five?

Zibanejad and Kreider were streaky this season, hence the search for a right wing to spark their play at the deadline. Zibanejad and Kakko both scored 12 even-strength goals this season, but Kakko played 20 fewer games than Zibanejad.

Zibanejad ended the regular season with 72 points, fifth-best on the Rangers and not too shabby, all things considered, for a “down year”. Still, 31 of those 72 points (43 percent) came on the power play. Even strength was an issue for him and Kreider, regardless of who played beside them.

You also have to wonder if it comes down to something beyond the stat sheet — confidence.

Kakko averaged 13:17 TOI, by far a career low and a full minute below his previous career low which was 14:17 in his rookie season as an 18-year-old. He often mentions his lack of ice time unprompted in conversations with reporters.

This is the recurring conversation with Kakko. Does he not get enough playing time to prove himself or has he not done enough to earn more playing time?

Either way, between the playing time, lack of production, and injury, it’s not difficult to see why Kakko wasn’t oozing with confidence this year.

Coach Peter Laviolette took accountability in exit interviews for Kakko’s disappointing season, telling the media that he failed to unleash him. Not for nothing, it’s a similar spot that Alexis Lafreniere was in just one season ago.

Yes, Lafreniere found immediate success playing in the top six, unlike Kakko, and made himself a fixture next to Trocheck and Artemi Panarin. But when the ice tightened and Panarin was smothered in the Eastern Conference Final, Lafreniere continued to produce on his own, scoring a team-high four goals in the series. Above all else, Lafreniere played with an aggression and confidence that had only been seen in small spurts before.

Whether or not Kakko can find that confidence in New York is another matter. Laviolette was able to find it with Lafreniere, so it could be worth another shot with Kakko.

There’s an important nuance to this conversation. The Rangers should not let Kakko get in the way of acquiring an impact player — say, Jake Guentzel, for instance, whom the Rangers were rumored to be gunning for ahead of the trade deadline.

However, there’s little point in trading Kakko just for the sake of getting rid of him.

Kakko no longer holds the value of a former No. 2 overall pick and thus can’t command a massive return on his own. If he is part of a package that general manager Chris Drury believes can make the Rangers better, so be it. The Rangers’ window to win is right now. Kakko has had chances, but it just hasn’t consistently meshed to this point.

However, if no such deal is on the table, there’s no need to force Kakko out of New York. He can be a valuable player next season, even if it only ends up being in a bottom-six role.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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