Kaapo Kakko‘s adjustment to the NHL has not gone according to plan, but a line change might just help him and the New York Rangers.
After New York selected Kakko second overall in the draft last summer, expectations were for him to make an immediate impact on the Blueshirts’ top-six forward group. Even though they were high expectations, they weren’t far fetched considering Kakko’s track record.
Overseas, Kakko simply dominated while playing against men in a top role, but now, in the NHL, he’s slumped, seeing his ice time take a hit for those struggles.
Slump or no slump, it is important to remember how Kakko is still just an 18-year-old rookie making some major adjustments. These are the very same adjustments head coach David Quinn talked about Saturday afternoon to Newsday’s Collin Stephenson.
“I’m sure some of the challenges he has, Jack Hughes doesn’t have. Jack Hughes grew up around here. His family’s here all the time. There’s no language barrier; his… routine hasn’t changed much from where he was last year. Whereas everything has changed for Kaapo.”
It sounds like an excuse, but it’s also the truth. We hear it all the time: athletes are creatures of habit and when their routines are changed just the slightest, their game usually suffers. Look at how teams come out of extended breaks or perform during random afternoon games on the schedule. It’s not the norm they’ve become accustomed to doing.
Kakko is staying with a family that isn’t his while in the biggest city in the world playing on the greatest hockey stage with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders at just 18-years-old. This adjustment was not going to just happen overnight, and we cannot predict exactly when it will happen. All Quinn, John Davidson, Jeff Gorton and the Rangers can do is try to make him feel comfortable.
With that in mind, Quinn decided it was time to move Kakko outside of the club’s top-six forward group prior to the club’s 7-4 loss to the Boston Bruins Sunday. While Quinn’s player usage and line combinations have been a storyline this year, this move should not fall into that category.
Yes, it’s fair to be angered by the move, considering Quinn is mixing his lines up yet again after a 6-1 victory over the red hot Buffalo Sabres Thursday at the Garden. But when you listen to the reasoning behind moving Kakko off a line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider to one with Brendan Lemieux and Brett Howden, it’s hard to disagree.
DQ said moving Kakko to the third line is about A) moving Fast back up and B) making it so Kakko isn’t matched up as much against other team’s top lines.
He also said he wants to get Kakko back to playing with Mika in the near future. Made this sound temporary. #NYR
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) October 26, 2019
Coaches are supposed to put their players in positions to succeed, and that is exactly what Quinn is doing here with Kakko. He realizes Kakko’s struggles and made a move to try and break him out of just them. Now instead of skating against the top defensive pairings of the opposition, Kakko will most likely go against bottom pairs. His skill should play more of a factor than it has to this point in the season.
The other side of this thought process is just as fair to the one Quinn is throwing out there. That being said, wouldn’t Kakko playing with your best players put him in a better position to succeed? The answer there is an obvious yes, and Quinn did just that, but Kakko has to go out there and perform to stay on the top line.
If we’ve learned anything from David Quinn over the last year and a half, it’s that you have to earn ice time. That’s why players like Brendan Smith experiences third-line minutes or why Jesper Fast is on the first line right winger yet again. Fast goes out there and gives you the same consistent game he’s played since he arrived. Smith has been consistent and is making plays when he’s on the ice, even if they aren’t fancy.
Kaapo Kakko’s time will come eventually, and while the sting of seeing him outside the top-six is valid, this move can only help him in the long run. It might not be right away, we just have to remember that’s okay.