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NHL

Oh, THERE’S Kaapo Kakko

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 22: The New York Rangers celebrate a second period goal by Kaapo Kakko #24 against the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden on March 22, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What’s wrong with Kaapo Kakko? It’s a question that hasn’t been asked as often or as loudly as it might be under anything resembling “normal” circumstances. It’s been drowned out by larger questions about what’s wrong with the young Rangers, who with lottery luck and a full, wisely managed teardown and rebuild have shown potential but not quite results. (“The expectations got a little beyond where they are reality-wise,” MSG analyst Dave Maloney told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, which is true but unsatisfying.) Kaapo, the 20-year-old Wunderfinn and second overall pick in 2019, was a non-factor in his rookie season and has been even more of a cipher in his sophomore campaign, but there have been potential mitigating factors for both. Last season was disrupted and shortened when the pandemic hit, making it harder for him to find his feet, and this season has started late and been unexpectedly interrupted a few times—sometimes by COVID-19 protocols striking opponents, and once by Kakko contracting COVID-19, with which he suffered symptoms and missed six games.

Maybe the biggest reason you haven’t heard more people asking what’s wrong with Kakko is the fear that just voicing the question will make real that something is indeed “wrong.” Learning curve aside, it’s baffling that a player capable of this could have scored only 29 points in 90 career NHL games heading into Monday night, including just two goals and two assists this year, and an ongoing 19-game goalless drought.

It’d be one thing if Kakko were just unlucky, or doing other useful things off the puck, but he’s mostly been invisible, and his xG—which purports to measure shot quality—has been right in line with his outcomes. His possession numbers have been better this season than last, but he’s still been a non-entity. The Rangers have tried to get him going, moving him up and down the lines and off of and back onto the power play units, but nothing really seemed to click—until, perhaps, last night’s game against the Sabres, and it took just six seconds.

Kakko, who had been skating on a third line alongside fellow underachieving youngsters Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil, was bumped up to skate with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome for an offensive-zone face-off. Panarin did the hard work to set up Kakko in front of net, and Kakko punched home a rebound for his first goal since Jan. 22.

Kakko would add an empty netter to seal the 5-3 win over Buffalo and double his season goal total, and take a look at his face after that one: relief and exhaustion and maybe a bit of eye-rolling over how easy that one was compared to the first three.

“The way Kaps had been playing the last three or four games,” said acting head coach Kris Knoblauch when asked why he moved Kakko up to the second line. “We felt he was ready for more responsibility. That was the most important thing; how well he has been playing.”

Despite Knoblauch’s comments, it’s actually a lot less responsibility, though more pressure, to play on a seasoned line with a pair of playmakers, instead of being forced to try to make things happen himself. As long as he can finish. Kakko seems to fully understand what’s asked of him on this line, if indeed it’s his now. “I was playing with Breadman [Panarin] and Strome, so they can keep the puck,” he said. “I just go to the net and they can find me. That was my job.”

The Rangers are starting to hit on more if not quite all cylinders, and have crawled back into spitting distance of the last East playoff spot. Yes, we must append the qualifier “this was against Buffalo,” but they all count, and if Kakko could get going, it’d be a huge roadblock lifted from what the Rangers hope to achieve this season and for the next decade. Then maybe they can start worrying about Lafrenière, the first overall pick, who has just four goals of his own.