On Kaapo Kakko’s struggles – receiving the puck and decision timing playing a role

Kakko will need to adjust how he receives passes to take the next step in his development

Kaapo Kakko is struggling. He has not taken the NHL by storm, led the league in scoring, and is not leading the Calder race. He is not even the best rookie on the team, as those honors go to Adam Fox. It’s clear he’s struggling, but why?

First things first, labeling the 18 year old as a bust is beyond silly. He’s 18 and adjusting to a new country and a new league. Everyone struggles who isn’t Connor McDavid. So, let’s back off the ledge, ok?

First let’s look at the numbers. Kakko currently has a line of 7-10-17 in 47 games. That averages out to 12-17-29 over 82 games. His season-long underlying numbers aren’t exactly stellar though (numbers are even strength from Natural Stat Trick, for forwards that have played at least 200 minutes). In fact, they are downright bad.

  • CF%: 42.47 (8th on the Rangers)
  • CF/60: 51.2 (8th)
  • CA/60: 69.48 (last)
  • xGF%: 37.13 (last)
  • xGF/60: 1.89 (last)
  • xGA/60: 3.2 (last)

Even Brett Howden has better defensive numbers than Kakko. So it’s clear the kid is struggling. But as you know, trends matter. We’ve been stressing this for a while now. So let’s see how he’s been playing lately.

Kakko’s season-long numbers are definitely weighed down a bit by a horrendous start, but he’s also worst among wingers in his recent trends as well (above is xGF%). So it’s not like he’s trending any better either. It’s not worth it to dive into even more numbers – he’s been struggling. And what the numbers show is what we’ve seen too. But why is that?

Let’s look at his style of play. Kakko is a playmaker who is used to a bigger ice surface. Overseas, he had more time to work with to make plays, read the ice, and determine the best play to make. Now on the smaller surface with better quality opposition, he has far less time to make his decisions.

While the fast game/ice surface is certainly a concern, it is not the main driver. Kakko’s style again is as a playmaker, so when he receives passes he is looking not to get a quick shot, even if he’s in a shooting location. This is evident in how he receives the pass, and it is something @ctmcnelis has pointed out that has piqued my interest.

What @ctmcnelis has noticed is Kakko receives the puck close into his body with his hands in tight and his shoulders perpendicular to the boards (back to the net). It’s a more passive approach which has fit his style of play for a few years now. When he has time, he’s able to move the puck from the receiving position out in front while circling to the high slot for a chance. The problem is he doesn’t have that opportunity in the NHL. By the time he receives the pass and begins to move, the defense is all over him.

It’s a slight adjustment, but it’s a safe assumption that the coaching staff will work with him to receive passes with a more aggressive approach in mind. That doesn’t necessarily mean one-timers, but receiving the puck with his hands and body in a position to both make a quick pass or fire a quick shot. This means hands a little more outstretched, power hand a little lower on the stick, and body position facing the opposite boards, not with his back at the net. It’s all about receiving the puck in a position to shoot, but keeping options open.

For Kakko, it’s more than just numbers and him “needing to improve.” There’s nuance to his game and even the slightest adjustment, such as how he receives a pass, can make a world of difference.

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  • Should’ve started in AHL…let’s handle next years top ten pick differently. Praying Kakko picks up some more speed as his body matures over the next few years.

  • I am not concerned yet as the kid is 18 and learning. Hughes is struggling just as badly, and you are correct that most 18 year olds not named McDavid have all struggled.

    My three main issues with his game so far:
    1. He hesitates before shooting
    2. He tries to do too much on his own
    3. He seems soft on puck battles

    Numbers 1 and 2 I think he is getting better at and they are both definitely correctable. They also could be due to lack of confidence and frustration from not producing more.

    Number 3 is the one I am worried about, and he has not really shown me that he has that edge, that will to win the puck battle at all costs. He almost seems okay with losing the puck in the corner. Hopefully he can turn this around.

    He certainly has a ton of skill, and it is easy to forget how young 18 years old really is. Most 18 year olds are living at home with their parents getting caught smoking weed or drinking beers. He is in a foreign country on the biggest stage in the world with extremely high expectations from an impatient fanbase.

    I personally will give the kid time until I make any judgement.

    Kucherov (age 21) – 38 points in 82 games
    Barkov (age 19) – 36 points in 71 games
    Nash (age 18) – 39 points in 74 games
    Stamkos (age 18) – 46 points in 79 games

    • Beg to differ, in the last couple of games he’s been more aggressive in battling for the puck. Patience grasshopper, he’s going through what almost every young player goes through, but the skills are all there and when the light goes off he’ll be much more productive. Clearly he was fatigued, but that can be easily corrected over the summer with more S&C … and with that confidence grows. It’s all part of the “process”. 😉

    • Randy

      You even said it, he’s only 18, and still needs to build his body for those battles. I would hate to go into the corners against this kid at age 21-22 or so, he will be a monster!!!!!!!!

    • well done.

      since the break, Kakko has been a lot more confident with the puck. you can see it. he might just needed to be re-charged.

  • Kakko is young and his game shows it. He needs to get regular reps on the 3rd line so there is an understanding of how the game is played. He also could use a personal coach who can talk to him (in FInnish) so he better understands his responsibilites

  • Tick Tock Tick Tock.

    Chytil is my measuring stick to judge Kappo with. #72 blossomed in more than 1 way since last season.
    I am sure the adjustments PC has endured are close to what young #24 is dealing with….

    I hope Kappo improves even greater due to his being a #2 pick.


    • Pas-I was thinking along the same lines as you regarding Chytil. Chytil’s a much stronger player with the puck this year. Last year he had a bunch of passes clank off his stick and he was easily separated from the puck by opponents. He still has these moments this season, but they’re much rarer. He’s also playing with more confidence, which is important. The kid is still 19 or 20 but he’s improving.

      Kakko looks like he lost some of his confidence that he started the year with. Watching him recently he seems like he’s hearing the coaches in his ear saying “shoot more”, and he hesitates and shoots softies on goal rather than letting it rip. He was a lot more assertive on the PP too early in the season.

      The points made in the article regarding Kakko receiving the puck are valid too. He’ll grow and get better. He’s already a good stick handler along the boards and he’s a good passer. Next year will be a big year for him. LGR!

      • What i posted on the Athletic: “(Kakko’s) got plenty of talent, but (IMHO) he’s been the stud on the ice for so long that he’s acquired some bad habits that he can’t get away with in the NHL (taking time to look around before making a play, assuming that he can outmuscle the player checking him, etc.). I give him credit, he’s figuring it out, and he’ll be a force once he finally adapts.”

  • Agreed. Think of the boost in his game once he starts gaining confidence. With a few tweaks, fully adjusted, improved English, and confidence… we have an elite player on our hands.

  • Not for nothing but he needs time in the ahl with the wolfpack,let him get his timing down and scoring to get him his confidence,lord knows he is not getting it up here.putting him on a first line is needless.

  • These are all terrible draft picks – Lias, Kakko, Hajek, even Chytil to an extent. None of these guys are going to be stars in this league. We ought to move out Kreider, Buch, Fast and Tony D and start over by getting some teams young studs instead of drafting in the bottom of the first round.

    Kakko looks to be hitting a wall and could use a day or 2 off.

    • I can’t tell if this post is trolling or serious.

      We didn’t draft Hajek.

      Kakko and Chytil are going to be studs…if not for us then for another team.

      Kakko just had 10 days off in which he went home to Finland and visited family and friends.

      Tony D is an absolute stud…top 10 in points for Dmen in the league and plays with a hard-nosed approach. Why would we trade him?

      Lias is the ‘bust’ but it’s not his fault he was drafted 7th. That’s the FO.

      We have young studs. We just need a) patience and b) a coach with structure and an actual NHL system.

  • Not worried at all…. Kakko is only 18 years of age and has a world of talent….the kid will blossom

  • No matter the player, when making the step up to a higher league it takes time – usually at least half a season – to adjust to the speed that the game is played at where everything happens a half step faster. I expect we’ll see a lot better from Kaako in the second half of this season.

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