In defense of Kaapo Kakko
Since Kaapo Kakko arrived on the radar of New York Rangers fans back during the 2018-19 season, he was but a glimmer of hope after a tough rebuilding season of hockey. There was no Artemiy Panarin yet, there was no Adam Fox yet. There was a trio of top prospects in Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, and Nils Lundkvist who represented the beginnings of a New York renaissance. But Kakko was on another hype level altogether. Some will look purely at stats and think of him as being a disappointment, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kakko is just 20 years old and has turned himself into a defensive force on the ice. This isn’t enough for some fans though. In defense of Kaapo Kakko, he’s been more than promising in his time so far in New York.
What’s the point of a hockey game? To beat your opponent, plain and simple. But, just as important as scoring more goals than your opponent is limiting their chances. Playing solid defense to put it simply. If your opponent’s chances are limited from solid defensive play then they won’t have the chance to score, giving you a larger chance to win the game. As players ascend the ranks of hockey from midgets, to major juniors, Euro leagues and the NCAA, to the AHL and eventually the NHL, team defense becomes more and more important. Team defense, no matter the system the head coach employs, requires the forwards to help the defenseman in preventing their opponents chances. It would make sense then to embrace forwards who can lock down their opponents.
The stats say Kakko is borderline elite defensively
Kakko is trending towards being one of the most elite defensive players in the game at, I cannot stress this enough, age 20. He understands how to limit an opponent’s chances at their end of the ice by using a combination of his stick play, large frame, and hockey IQ. Now this isn’t just me blowing smoke, the analytics back it up. Analytics help us fill in the gaps on player tracking where the eye test can fail us and in this case, they bolster Kakko’s defensive impacts. According to some defensive metrics, he was rated as high as the second best defensive forward in the NHL. Let’s take a quick look at Kakko’s heat maps from the 2020-21 season to see his individual on-ice impacts at both ends of the ice.
To break this down for those not familiar with these types of analytical charts, when Kakko was on the ice the Rangers were 15% more impactful on offense and 17% more impactful on defense. You want to see more red on the map for offensive metrics and more blue on the map for defensive metrics. Kakko has achieved those both in spades. What makes this even more impressive is that Kakko missed a lot of games last season when he contracted the COVID-19 virus. As someone with an underlying condition, Diabetes, the virus affected him more than the average person and when he returned he was still able to keep his defensive play up and excel at it. So why haven’t the points come yet?
Lineup decisions drive points
Kakko had to battle not just COVID-19 during this past season but poor lineup decisions from former Head Coach David Quinn. Quinn rarely put Kakko in offensive spots to succeed, and when he did and Kakko had success he would get bumped down the lineup for seemingly no reason at all. All power to Colin Blackwell, he truly performed admirably in his time in the Rangers top-six, but that spot next to Strome and Panarin should’ve been Kakko’s last season. The points began to flow for him towards the end of the season as over the last 25 games he averaged half a point per game. Kakko looks poised to break out under an improved coaching staff led by veteran bench boss Gerard Gallant. He will be thrust into the top-six forward group this season as the departure of Pavel Buchnevich opened up a nice juicy right wing spot next to star center Mika Zibanejad. Kakko will get the chance under Gallant to let his offensive point totals soar. Something David Quinn never seemed to want to take a chance on.
Probably the biggest question to ask fans on Kakko is this: If Kakko turned into a player like Mark Stone, would anyone be that upset at that? Certainly not. Year in and year out, Stone has turned himself into a 60-point player who dominates at both ends of the ice. Kakko and Stone are of a similar build even with both players around 6’3” and 200 pounds (Stone being a bit heavier at 220). If Kakko becomes a 60-point top line right winger that dominates at both ends of the ice, it’s a homerun. With players like Artemi Panarin, Alexis Lafreniere and Mika Zibanejad using their free flowing skill all over the ice, to have a bull like Kakko who can score and defend with the best of them will be a great compliment to the forward corps of the New York Rangers as their return to Stanley Cup contention continues.
This third year of Kakko’s development in the NHL is no doubt a crucial one. He will be counted upon to score and be part of the engine that makes the Rangers offense run. Gallant will no doubt put him in every position he needs to succeed and seeing his commitment to training this summer should make everyone a believer in the Rangers’ prize finnish winger. The harder part of being an NHL player is learning how to defend and Kakko is well on his way to nailing that aspect. If Gallant truly unlocks his offensive potential… look out. For those fans that seem to have given up on Kakko, give him a chance. He may just surprise you.