No Need for Excuses
With a looming 38.9% chance, the Rangers entered the 2019 draft with the notion that they would be awarded the 7th overall pick. However, with only a 7.8% chance of snagging the 2nd pick, the Rangers managed to jump 5 spots and had the opportunity to draft either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. There was no doubt going into the draft that there were miles separating these two players with the rest of their draft class. So naturally Rangers fans were ecstatic. We would finally get our homegrown star.
Approaching the draft it became evident that the Rangers would be drafting Kaapo Kakko. Jack Hughes’ skill and incredible play placed him “in a world of his own” according to The Hockey Writers. Which meant the consensus No. 2 pick, Kaapo Kakko, was ours. Kaapo Kakko, according to almost every scout, was to have an immediate impact in the NHL. They stated “[Kakko]...is the best prospect from Finland since Barkov” (Toni Rajamaki, Future Considerations). The New York Post wrote “adjusting to the NHL should be seamless [for Kakko]”.
However, we know that the transition was not at all seamless. With 10 goals and 23 points in 66 games, Kakko did not seem to have enough time and space to move freely with the puck as he did back in Europe. According to Evolving Hockey, Kakko ranked last among all NHL forwards this season in estimated overall impact when on the ice. The model estimates that any average player picked up off of waivers was worth almost 9 more goals than Kakko. I know that these stats don’t sit very well, nor should they. However, no matter what Kakko managed to do this season, no matter the fact that the Rangers were outscored 30 -12 (even strength) when he was on the ice, no one really seemed to question it. Many chalked his struggles up to the adjustment to North American hockey, others to the change in language and system, and others to his age, but in my eyes these are all unjustified excuses. There are 13 players who made the same transition as Kakko and this is how he stacks up:
Data from Evolving-Hockey.com
There is no way that the change in lifestyle dramatically diminished Kakko’s ability to perform to the point where he is statistically one of the worst forwards in the NHL. Kakko had a bad season, a very bad season, we should not shy away from admitting it and neither should Kakko, and he hasn't. In an interview late in the season, Kakko was asked specifically what he needed to improve upon he replied, "Everything, I'm playing bad hockey". Kakko's ability to recognize his lackluster play while everyone else was patting him on the back is a great quality.
Do not get me wrong, I think Kakko will be an amazing NHL player ONE DAY. But today is not that day. There is no reason to make excuses for Kakko's well below average play, nor are there any reasons to chalk Kakko up as a bust. Developing a player takes time, some longer than others and it seems Kakko is of the latter. In my opinion, there is no scenario that a player with the amount of skill possessed by Kappo Kakko would be a bust which is precisely why the organization, the coaches, and the fans have all been extremely patient with Kakko. Because of this, I do not see the need to make excuses for the young player and neither does Kakko. In an interview with Finland's Eastside Media Kakko refused to blame his age for his poor start in the NHL. He explained, "My goal is to have a leading role...I don't want to hear any talk about how I'm the youngest guy and I need to be given time to get used to the style. I want to be the guy who scores goals and wins games right away". This is the winning attitude that will get Kakko where he wants to be. He clearly wants to make more of an impact and in order to do so Kakko needs to learn from this season's mistakes and move forward without looking back to become the player we all hoped he would be.