The Kaapo Kakko return will benefit the Rangers, but how much?

Before their strong win over the LA Kings, the Rangers were in a bit of a rut. While they were still winning games, they looked less and less like the team that was completely shutting down opponents with stellar team defense, forechecking, and neutral zone pressure. It was no coincidence that the defensive play took a step back when Kaapo Kakko got hurt. Kakko is underrated, and it’s clear the Rangers need him back.

To be clear, Kakko’s injury is not the sole cause of the recent blip the Rangers went through, but it played a significant role. He is easily the Rangers’ best defensive forward, and is a player that does all the dirty work in the top six so players like Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider can put pucks in the net. Think of Kakko like you would have Jesper Fast when he was in the top-six.

From a systems standpoint, and this is something we covered last week in our Patreon post (subscribe here!), Kakko is a perfect fit for how Peter Laviolette wants this team to play. The majority of their forecheck is a 2-1-2, which requires smart reads and getting in passing lanes, forcing turnovers. Kakko would be F1/F2 in this scenario.

FYI: The 1-3-1 forecheck that was highlighted in October is used late with leads or during line changes, in lieu of a 1-4 trap.

Without a strong forecheck, the Rangers are on their heels without the puck in the offensive and neutral zones. This allows opponents to gain speed through the neutral zone, leading to more high danger and rush chances. This snowballs without Filip Chytil, another strong two-way player who is out of the lineup. These are two critical top-six players (to start the season), and instead we have Jonny Brodzinski on the top line, Nick Bonino as the 3C, and Barclay Goodrow back to 4C.

No disrespect to Bonino, Goodrow, or Brodzinski, but all three are miscast in those roles.

Kakko is underrated in the offensive zone

In the offensive zone, Zibanejad and Kreider are now lacking that critical play driver on their line, and the balance on the line has taken a significant hit. Per Natural Stat Trick, that duo with Kakko put up a 52% shot share (51.59 CF/60), a 58.28% xG share (2.18 xGF/60), and a whopping 64% high-danger shot share (12.4 HDCF/60).

Without Kakko, mostly with Blake Wheeler, the Kreider-Zibanejad duo’s rates take a big hit to a 48.19% shot-share (58.34 CF/60), a 46.1% xG share (2.57 xGF/60), and a 46.27% high danger chance share (11.3 HDCF/60). For clarity’s sake, without Kakko the line gets significantly worse, mostly when it comes to limiting quality and quantity chances against.

Defense isn’t really the role of the top line, and that’s a very fair point. The big difference with Wheeler over Kakko is a sharp drop in high danger chances, down a full chance per 60 minutes of ice time. Their raw shot attempt numbers go up, but it is more medium danger chances (10.42 with Kakko vs. 15.31 without). This duo, with Wheeler, simply isn’t getting those high danger chances anymore.

Kakko does for Kreider and Zibanejad what Fast did for Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin. He draws attention, he digs along the boards, and he creates space for Kreider and Zibanejad to get to the net and get those high danger chances. It is also what many argued Barclay Goodrow did for Panarin and Strome/Vincent Trocheck (spoiler: he did not).

More proof that Kakko is underrated: The Rangers have won the high danger chance battle just twice since his injury (Detroit, LA Kings). They won both of those games, plus two very sloppy games against Nashville and San Jose. They got gobsmacked by Buffalo (which is when Kakko got hurt), Washington, and Ottawa in that span too.

Why is he underrated?

Kakko is underrated, or perhaps under appreciated, due to multiple factors. As a former #2 overall pick, a lot of hype came with him. Many thought the Rangers were getting a bonafide scorer who is solid in all three zones. Kakko simply hasn’t been that yet, but he was starting to show signs with a 18-22-40 line last year.

More recently, and what is fresh in everyone’s minds, is his 2-1-3 line to start the season. It’s not a good scoring line, plain and simple, and as the Rangers top line, they need more out of that trio. It is worth noting that Kakko’s SH% this season (8.7%) is a full 3 points below his career average (11.5%), so his conversion rate has been impacted by a bit of poor luck.

Even worse, the Kreider-Zibanebad-Kakko trio had a wildly unlucky 4% on-ice SH%. The Rangers as a team shoot double that at 8.28%. There was simply some bad puck luck for the trio that extended further than many wanted. People clamor for Zibanejad and Kreider to start scoring, and they deserve blame, yet it seemed like Kakko was getting all the blame.

So we have a former #2 overall pick who didn’t meet fan expectations and was struggling along with the Rangers top-two goal scorers. It’s ok to place blame on Kakko, that trio simply wasn’t scoring. But to call Kakko a bust was a bit extreme in a world where Lias Andersson exists.

Kakko is underrated, and if anything the recent sloppy stretch has shown there’s more to his game than a simple bad scoring line to start the season. The Rangers will benefit from Kakko’s return, and hopefully he returns to the top line so they get another crack at it. If that line simply matches the 8.28 SH% the Rangers currently have, you’re doubling the number of goals that line has scored at 5v5.

It’s not perfect, and we’d like to see that line generate a lot more consistent offense. That will come, and they will need Kakko –or a similarly effective play driver– to do so. If anything, we see now how Kakko is underrated, and how the Rangers have struggled when he’s out of the lineup.

P.S. All this also applies to Filip Chytil, another player who gets way too much criticism.

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