In February 2018, the New York Rangers did something no one ever wants to do: admit failure. The club penned an open letter to their fans explaining that a rebuild was necessary; it would hurt to miss the playoffs and trade away beloved players, but it was essential for the good of the franchise.
Fast forward less than two years, and the tune has changed on Broadway. The Rangers landed Kaapo Kakko with the number two overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, and there’s an aura of excitement around the team. But, with the puck about to drop on the Blueshirt’s season, who is this Finnish phenom and what will he bring to the Rangers?
Rising through the Finnish ranks
During his entire time in Finland, Kakko played for TPS. He made his debut for the club’s under-16 team in 2015 and immediately established himself as a point-per-game player. That trend continued as he advanced up the age levels, and, in 2017, the teenager made his debut for TPS’ senior club in the SM-liiga. Despite playing in Finland’s highest level against grown men, Kakko more than held his own. In his first professional season, the 18-year-old winger recorded 22 goals and 16 assists in 45 games.
Unsurprisingly, those performances caught the eyes of NHL scouts. A tournament on the national stage, however, confirmed that Kakko was bound for stardom.
The 2019 Ice Hockey World Championship
In May 2019, the Ice Hockey World Championship took place in Slovakia. While the tournament doesn’t traditionally receive much attention in North America since it overlaps with the NHL playoffs, European nations take the competition quite seriously.
After helping Finland capture gold medals at the U-18 World Championship and the World Junior Championship, Kakko received a shot on the senior squad. The winger turned the tournament into his coming-out party, recording six goals in 10 games. Most impressively, he held his own against teams full of grown men, many of whom played in the NHL.
The Finnish winger was strong enough to play with the pros, but wasn’t slow or plodding; if anything, his speed and skill belied his size. Based on that clear potential, the New York Rangers didn’t hesitate to select him with the second overall pick of the 2019 NHL draft.
What does Kaapo Kakko bring to the New York Rangers?
After an exodus of talent during the past few seasons, Kakko looks to be one of the cornerstones of a new-look Rangers offense. The big Finnish winger definitely seems ready to produce right away—he’s listed at 6 feet, 3 inches and 199 pounds and will only bulk up—and should slot into a second-line role alongside Ryan Strome and Chris Kreider. He appears to be starting the year on the second power play unit, but head coach David Quinn may shuffle his lines during the first few weeks of the season.
In terms of a direct comparison, Kakko’s NHL game should be similar to his countryman Patrik Laine. While the Winnipeg Jets star is a bit larger than Kakko, they’re both blessed with a deadly mixture of size and skill; it’s not unforeseeable to see the Rangers rookie potting 60 points this season.
Going into the 2019-20 NHL season, the New York Rangers are in an uncertain position. While they have a great deal of top-end talent, there’s also plenty of youth and inexperience. There will be some growing pains, and this team is still at least one center away from an ideal line-up, but the Rangers will be a fun team to watch. If nothing else, you can count on Kaapo Kakko to put on a show.