After a horrible rookie season that left many worried for his future, Kaapo Kakko has progressed into a new player. In 2019-20, then teenage Kakko was not only one of the worst players on his own New York Rangers team, but in the entire league. Now, 20-year-old Kakko has provided Rangers fans with a reason for optimism during a bleak stretch for the team. While the point totals are still underwhelming for a second overall pick, his overall gameplay on both offence and defence has improved drastically.
Looking At Kaapo Kakko’s Impressive Turnaround
Kakko In 2019-20
Kaapo Kakko struggled mightily in just about every statistical category last season. His 1o goals and 13 assists for 23 points in 66 games (with only 10 points at even strength) were quite abysmal compared to expectations. Those numbers were just scratching the surface.
His WAR (wins-above-replacement) of -1.7 ranked 4th to last in the league. His rates of xGF/60 and xGA/60 were both bottom four in the league and their atrociousness can be observed below.
Aside from the statistics, Kakko’s lack of NHL readiness was on display daily. He would rarely generate chances off the cycle and his forecheck was nonexistent. He often retreated to the perimeter even after plays where he showed flashes of skill. On the whole, his struggle to maintain possession and generate chances could be seen on a shift-to-shift basis.
Kakko’s 2021 Revitalization
While his 2019-20 campaign had many ready to label him a bust, Kappo Kakko came into the season with a chip on his shoulder and proved the doubters wrong. Although the offensive production points-wise does not help his case (2 goals and 1 assist for 3 points in 13 games), he has truly proven to be a different player in 2021.
Unlike last season where he was a turnover machine, Kakko has 13 takeaways and just 1 giveaway for a ratio that ranks atop of the league. Additionally, he has become more active in the offence. His individual shots on goal per 60 have increased from 6.94 to 8.44. His SCF% (percent of scoring chances for his team while he is on the ice) was 41.70% last season but is now 51.88%. Kakko’s increased aggressiveness on the puck has allowed him to generate chances from the slot rather than sticking to the perimeter as he used to.
Defensively, Kakko has been unrecognizable (in a good way). His newfound awareness has resulted in very good defensive contributions on his part. He has been a force to be reckoned with off the puck, constantly forcing turnovers and initiating pressure to create opportunities on the rush. He has been winning more puck battles down low and preventing chances for the opposition. Statistically speaking, he ranks 3rd among team forwards in xEVD (expected even-strength defense goals-above replacement). Among all skaters 21 and under, he ranks 7th in xEVD. There are notable improvements in all RAPM categories, where Kakko is now a net-positive player.
For someone who had such a poor rookie season, the magnitude of his improvement is immeasurably impressive.
Many of those who lost their faith in young Kaapo Kakko are beginning to regain it. Kakko has not necessarily been amazing by any means. But the distinction between the player he was then and the player he is now is an incredible sign of progression and a reason for excitement in New York. While the goals and assists have been slow to come, that has been a theme not exclusive to just Kakko. Soon enough, as Kakko continues to develop in the top-six, the Rangers will have their hands on an elite group of youngsters with the potential to do some serious damage around the league.