NHL

Rangers' Kaapo Kakko adjusting to peaks and valleys of 1st NHL season

Many rookies talk about adapting to the speed of the NHL game. For Kaapo Kakko, picked second overall by the New York Rangers in last spring's draft, the biggest challenge has been adjusting to the NHL's smaller ice surface compared to rinks in his native Finland.

'I just have to see every game as an opportunity and be ready for it,' says 18-year-old forward

New York Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko, seen above during his first NHL game on Oct. 3, 2019, recently went through a 19-game scoring drought after a strong start to the season. The rookie says "I'll try to get that mode back again." (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Many rookies talk about adapting to the speed of the NHL game.

For Kaapo Kakko, picked second overall by the New York Rangers in last spring's draft, the biggest challenge has been adjusting to the NHL's smaller ice surface compared to rinks in his native Finland.

"Holding on to the puck has been my strength always," the 18-year-old native of Turku said recently. "In Finland, where rinks are bigger, it's so much easier.

"When I was young, I was told rinks here are smaller. I thought not probably that much smaller. But now I really see it. It's a totally different game here. I should shoot more and play a more simple game and not always try to find that one extra pass."

The standard NHL rink is about 61 metres long and 26 metres wide. Most European rinks are 60 by 30 metres.

In his first 38 games Kakko scored seven goals and nine assists while averaging just over 15 minutes of ice time. His 16 points are about half of other rookies like Buffalo's Victor Olofsson, picked 181st back in 2014; Colorado's Cale Makar, picked fourth in 2017; Quinn Hughes, Vancouver's seventh pick in 2018; and Montreal's Nick Suzuki, selected 13th by Vegas in 2017.

Kakko had a goal and an assist in the Rangers' 4-3 loss to Calgary Jan. 2. That came after 19 games without a goal and eight with no points.

"I'm not used to playing that long without goals," he said. "There were games where I had chances but also games where I couldn't even get chances.

"It's not a fun feeling after games. It wasn't an easy stretch."

WATCH | Kakko taken 2nd overall by Rangers in 2019 draft:

The Finn was selected by the Rangers 2nd overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 1:00

Another adjustment for the six-foot-three, 199-pound right winger is playing on the Rangers' third line with centre Filip Chytil and Brett Howden.

"If you look at the goals teams score, for the most part they come from top lines," Kakko said. "If you play eight minutes a night it's not easy to score.

"There's not really more that I'd like to say about this. I will just try to keep working hard."

Rangers' coach David Quinn said Kakko showed his potential by collecting six goals and eight assists in his first 16 games.  

"He was really going well through November, then he got sick and missed a week and it set him back a little bit," said Quinn. "I think he lost a little bit of his confidence because he was on such a good roll.

"As most 18-year-olds, there are peaks and valleys in your first NHL season."

Howden sees Kakko's ability.

"Just the way he approaches the game, his attack mentality," said the second-year Ranger from Calgary. "He wants to be the difference maker. He always wants the puck on his stick. You want players like that."

When Kakko first joined the Rangers he was the only Finn on the team and spoke only limited English.

"My first games of the season I didn't understand everything," he said. "It's getting better."

Health challenges

Five years ago, Kakko was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease. He takes insulin for the diabetes and has a gluten-free diet to deal with the celiac.

"Right now, it's so easy for me," Kakko said about dealing with his health. "I've learned how."

Max Domi of the Montreal Canadiens is also a Type 1 diabetic with celiac. Bobby Clarke, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, is a Type 1 diabetic.

WATCH | Kakko strikes twice vs. Canada in opener of 2019 world championships:

Finnish phenom shows flashes of offensive prowess with 2 goals in 3-1 win over Canada in opening game of 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Slovakia. 1:42

Last year, Kakko had 22 goals and 16 assists in 45 games with TPS Turku of the Finnish Elite League.

He scored the winning goal in the dying seconds of the third period to give Finland a 3-2 win over the United States in the gold medal game at the world junior championships in Vancouver last January.

A few months later, Kakko was part of the team that defeated Canada in the final of the world championships. He is the youngest player to win gold in the world under-18 championships, the world juniors and the world championships.

Can't curb his enthusiasm

One of Kakko's fans is Larry David, creator of TV's Seinfield and star of the HOB show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Speaking on ESPN Radio's The Michael Kay Show recently, David criticized Quinn for benching Kakko after taking a holding penalty in the loss to Calgary.

"You don't think he knows he took a bad penalty. He knows," David said. "Benching him is not going to do anything."

Larry David criticizes Rangers coach for benching Kakko:

And Coach Quinn responds:

Quinn is quick to remind everyone Kakko is a teenager navigating a new reality.

"People always need to keep in mind that not only is this guy playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old, there are so many new things going on in his life," said Quinn.  "He moves to a new country, English is his second language.

"There's a lot that's going in an 18-year-old's head when you step into the situation, he's in. I think he's handled it very well."

Kakko wants to concentrate on his game and not get sidetracked by distractions.

"I just have to see every game as an opportunity and be ready for it," he said. "People started talking that I had played this amount of games without a goal, but I can't let that outside noise impact me.

"When I was hot in November, I got a couple of goals and got my confidence. I'll try to get that mode back again."

About the Author

Jim has written about sports in Canada for more than 40 years for The Canadian Press, CBC Sports, CFL.ca and Swimming Canada. He has covered eight Olympic Games and three Paralympics. He was there the night the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and has covered 12 Grey Cups.

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