Call me crazy, and I’m sure many of you will based on that headline, but Kaapo Kakko should go back to his original 1RW spot next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider when he returns. Perhaps this seems like the obvious choice, given recent performances and clear holes in the lineup, perhaps not. But there is one thing we know: Blake Wheeler is a placeholder there.
That’s no disrespect to Wheeler, who has done everything asked of him this season. But it’s very clear that he’s a step too slow for top-six minutes. His 5-10-15 line–mostly with Zibanejad and Kreider–is pretty good, and again he’s doing everything asked of him. That line, though, has not been the threat it should be or needs to be with Wheeler there.
Kakko is not some offensive dynamo that will turn that line around to more consistency, but he does add a little extra pep that Wheeler can’t anymore (the dude is 37 years old). The line is very much one-and-done in the offensive zone and with Wheeler has become a major defensive liability.
Per Natural Stat Trick, the numbers are pretty rough with Wheeler, with positive PDO regression for Zibanejad and Kreider as part of the reason the goals are finally starting to trickle in.
- Kreider/Zibanejad with Kakko:
- CF/60 – 51.60
- CA/60 – 46.14
- CF% – 52.79
- xGF/60 – 2.18
- xGA/60 – 1.56
- xGF% – 58.29
- HDCF/60 – 12.4
- HDCA/60 – 6.95
- HDCF% – 64.10
- SH% – 4%
- Kreider/Zibanejad with Wheeler:
- CF/60 – 59.08
- CA/60 – 61.03
- CF% – 49.19
- xGF/60 – 2.6
- xGA/60 – 3.11
- xGF% – 45.51
- HDCF/60 – 12.21
- HDCA/60 – 15.53
- HDCF% – 44.00
- SH% – 11.38
Not everything is terrible, and Wheeler certainly adds more shot volume in the offensive zone. Without even diving into the HDCF/HDCA numbers, which to me are far more important, we see the marginal offensive improvement at the cost of significant defensive issues. Since this line is not sheltered with offensive zone starts, the defensive numbers have become a liability.
This is very evident when looking at their HDCF/HDCA numbers. The top line also double the amount of high danger chances against while seeing an actual dip in high danger changes for. Basically, the CF/60 and xGF/60 numbers are all inflated by low and medium danger chances, not the high danger chances that lead to more goals.
To sum this up in two sentences: Wheeler has made no discernable difference on offense while dragging them down defensively. The reason why the team is scoring more with them on is their on-ice SH% almost tripled from 4%, which was unsustainably low.
The good news is Peter Laviolette likely knows this and is aware of the problem at 1RW. Wheeler was a stopgap, and a solid one at that. The Kakko/Wheeler swap just before Kakko’s injury likely would have been undone by now had Kakko been healthy, given the results above.
The other good news is that with Kakko’s imminent return, the Rangers will have 6-7 weeks to evaluate Kakko as the 1RW with both Kreider and Zibanejad shooting at their normal career rates. If Kakko fits, then great! If not, then they’ve had a long enough evaluation period to know what they need at the trade deadline.
Kakko may not be the long term answer at 1RW, but for now he is the best answer given the information we have available to us. The Rangers have an issue generating consistent offense at 5v5, and while Kakko may not directly impact offensive numbers, but he indirectly does by improving defensive numbers, leading to more offensive zone time and better ratios. Sometimes, being net-positive is enough.
The Rangers have essentially been treading water at a bit over hockey .500 since Kakko’s injury. His defensive impacts are sorely needed at a position of need for the Rangers. He may not be what many had hoped for from a #2 overall pick, but this kid is a big part of what should be a long playoff run, hopefully through June.