Kaapo Kakko has been nothing short of a puzzling player for the Rangers through his first three years. Bounced around the lineup and dealing with multiple injuries and COVID, Kakko’s confidence had been completely shot. That was until the kid line was formed, and Kakko looked like a #2 overall pick. The Kakko enigma hopefully was one step closer to being solved.
The Kakko Enigma
The Kakko enigma dates back before this season, but this is a 2022 report card, not a 2021 or 2020 report card. Kakko played just 43 regular season games this year, but he put up numbers that would have been in line with career highs in half the season (7-11-18). That’s approximately 14 goals and 36 points over a full season.
Before we say that’s not good enough for a #2 overall pick, we need to look at ice time context. For starters, Kakko was another one of those kids who has been held back by not receiving powerplay time. His scoring line suffers because of it.
Adding to the Kakko enigma is his linemates. This isn’t to say his linemates are bad, it’s that last year he played with seemingly everyone. Kakko got about 60 even strength minutes (about 6 games) with the kid line, mostly at the end of the season. His most consistent line was with Zibanejad and Kreider at 270ish minutes, and then Panarin/Strome at 160ish minutes.
One RAPM chart doesn’t tell a story, but it does tell you where Kakko’s struggles have been. Much like last season, Kakko excelled on the defensive side of things. He definitely took a step back in terms of offensive possession numbers, but that checks out given how little the Rangers drove offensive play last year.
One thing to focus on: The GF/60 bar. This is the second straight season that Kakko has had a GF/60 well below his xGF/60. A lot factors into that. A broken wrist, for example, might factor into his release. He did work on a previous weakness and improved significantly with how he receives the puck. So there’s obvious improvements. He just hasn’t pieced it all together. The Kakko enigma, indeed.
What about Kakko’s future?
Kakko will most certainly remain with the Rangers for the duration of his bridge deal signed this offseason. He won’t be traded for a rental or an aging player. I think those days are long gone.
But contributing to the Kakko enigma is where he will play next season and beyond. The Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko line was very good, putting up a 54.67% expected goals share, and most notably generating offense at a 2.66 xGF/60 clip. On a team where generating offense is a need, this line was fine.
Kakko was even fine with Panarin and Strome, putting up a 52.73% expected goals share. But this line only generated a 2.38 xGF/60, again a reference to the one-and-done nature of Panarin/Strome. Vincent Trocheck changes that line’s dynamic, and perhaps a steady net front presence opens space along the wing for Kakko.
The big contributor to the Kakko enigma is his scoring, and if he still can’t seem to get points –coupled with perhaps Vitali Kravtsov showing better scoring ability– then perhaps Kakko is best suited as part of a shutdown line. He’s shown great chemistry with Filip Chytil, who is also a solid play driver and much better than people give him credit for. Can that duo be two-thirds of a shutdown line that can also score?
Kakko is one of the Rangers best defensive forwards. He has the skill and potential to drive offense as well, but hasn’t put it all together yet. These next two years are big. It looks like Kakko took a big step forward last season, and will get top-six minutes this season.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with what Kakko is doing right now. He’s one of the Rangers better play drivers, in addition to being one of their top defensive forwards. On a team that now needs to replace three top-six players, Kakko is going to get every opportunity to show what he can do.
Grade: B-, would be higher if he could stay healthy