For New York Rangers youngster Kaapo Kakko, there is more to the game than scoring goals in his first year in the Big Apple.
What were you doing when you were 18-years-old? If you didn’t move to a new country, live with an adopted family, get selected with the second overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft or play in front of 18,000 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, you don’t have the slightest idea of what this Finnish kid has endured this season.
The grueling pressure day in and day out has to be overwhelming. We have a kid who pretty much dominated the Finnish hockey league and only to have his entire world turned upside down.
He’s met every media responsibility, has had to learn a new system, and has now lost the safety net of having familiar faces and family around, along with others who speak his language on an everyday basis.
Kakko has been inconsistent at times this year. He has played everywhere from the fourth line to the top line, but has never complained or become lazy. Instead, he works harder on and off the ice to be the young worker he knows his teammates need.
The good times have not come without the troubles every rookie in the NHL experiences. He has struggled to find the scoring touch he had just 10 months ago overseas. Kakko tends to overthink what to do when he has the puck, a problem he never really encountered before turning coming to the big leagues.
The winger tends to pass up the prime shooting opportunity, a scenario that the coaching staff has been trying to work with him to correct. The situation has grown larger over the past 15 games, but Kakko is a determined player to correct the issues.
The media has been patient with him, but social media and Rangers Twitter, in general, have been brutal. Many have been calling his selection a bust while others have suggested he should be sent down to the AHL to gain confidence as fellow teammate Filip Chytil did.
All of these “suggestions” take the incorrect path. This kid is going to be outstanding, but it takes time to adjust to a league that boasts the best hockey players in the world. There is less room on the ice, the hitting is harder and the game is much faster.
Kakko has managed to keep his head above water through it all. He will figure this out just like other rookies who needed an adjustment period. A player like Vancouver Canucks’ Quinn Hughes and Buffalo Sabres’ Jack Eichel have gone through the same issues before ultimately reaching the level needed to become top players in the NHL. Kakko is not far from this level himself.
The Accomplishments Are Noticeable
A tired Kakko welcomed the All-Star-bye week off the ice. He went back home to Finland, visited his family and friends, and was able to recharge his tired body.
He was put on the top line as his game has improved since the team got back to playing games last week. On Monday night, he had an assist, giving him his 17th career point, which is the most by an 18-year-old in Rangers history.
NHL.com reporter Dan Rosen recognized his improved play in their game against Dallas on Monday night.
“There are nights when Kaapo Kakko handles the puck with the confidence of a player who feels he’s going to score five goals that night. Tonight is one of those nights. He won’t score five, maybe not even one, but he’s showing why he’s so highly regarded and why his future is so bright.”
The future of Rangers’ success lies in the hands of Kaapo Kakko. He will turn 19 on Feb. 13 and is still a very young kid playing in a league of men. He has a lot to learn, but he has been good enough to compete most nights.
The scoring will progress in time, as it has for other players at the same stage of their careers. For now, Kakko will continue to do what he does best. He will continue to work hard at practice, learn from the veterans and coaching staff around him, and continue to grow into what will be a great career in the city that never sleeps.