Look, it has been a long, disappointing year filled with growing pains for Kaapo Kakko, whose across-the-board numbers are so bad that you might want to check out first-overall Joe Thornton’s 1997-98 rookie season with the Bruins (three goals, four assists, 8:05 per primarily on the fourth line and two dozen healthy scratches playing for Pat Burns) for solace.
I believe Kakko has been used appropriately by David Quinn as a third-line winger who somehow has maintained his spot on the second power-play unit despite having scored two goals in 46 games since Nov. 20. You have to earn top-six time on any team, and certainly on this one that has been carried all season by its top two formidable units on which Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome have distinguished themselves. No. 24 had not earned that time.
Kakko has been partnered almost exclusively with Filip Chytil since the middle of December — with a rotation of Brett Howden, Brendan Lemieux and Phil DiGiuseppe on the other side. Regardless of the identity of the left wing, the unit has been far less than the sum of its parts. Chytil and Kakko both project as linchpins, but in 276:30 of five-on-five play this season, the youths have been hammered in shot attempts, shot share and xGF while on the ice for five goals for and 16 against. (Thanks, naturalhattrick.com.)
When the top six was rolling offensively, the team could withstand the third-line concoction. But now, with Kreider down with a broken foot and the Rangers having gone two games without scoring an even-strength goal in No. 20’s absence, Quinn needs to change things up beginning with Thursday’s Garden match against the Capitals.
It is time, for the first time since Dec. 10 in L.A., for Kakko to move up onto Zibanejad’s unit. Time for Kakko to return to prime time, even as the challenge has never been mightier and the pressure never greater, given the stakes and the pace of the game. But after properly shielding the teenager most of the year, it is time for the coach to give the young thoroughbred his lead.
DiGiuseppe does bring a dash of Kreider’s straight-line edge to the unit with Zibanejad in the middle and Pavel Buchnevich on the right, and has worked the walls and the corners diligently in two games subbing for No. 20, but the 26-year-old just doesn’t have the skill set to play top-six minutes.
And Kakko has the mentality — all right, ego — to take this and run, or at least give it a creditable try. We’ve been waiting since October for the Finn to step up. We know from his rather consistent commentary throughout the year that Kakko himself believes he merits the chance.
Now it’s time.
The drawback, of course, is that the matchups would become more challenging. Instead of facing third lines and third pairs, he’d be on against top-six forwards and top-four defensemen. That not only presents a test offensively, but even more so on the defensive side of the puck. If a move were made for this next match, Kakko could find himself opposite Alex Ovechkin for 10-12 minutes of five-on-five play.
Kakko battled well in the one-on-ones and went to the dirty areas against the Blues in Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat, in which he also had an encouraging late shift after Quinn limited the winger to one turn worth 22 seconds from 8:55 to 16:42 of the third period. That’s when the coach double-shifted his top two units even as they came up empty.
The second-overall draft choice has been yearning to do great things this season. A résumé of eight goals and 12 assists in 62 games does not meet that standard. The Rangers need some greatness down the stretch. It is time for Quinn to see if the 19-year-old has it in him in the most difficult, most challenging and most important time of the year.
Time for Kakko.
At the general managers’ meetings in Florida, Blueshirts GM Jeff Gorton reiterated that a realistic timetable for Kreider’s return from the injury he sustained on Feb. 28 is “4-6 weeks.” The season ends four weeks from Saturday. Kreider, of course, has vowed to be back sooner than that.
Igor Shesterkin continues to progress recovering from the broken rib he sustained in the Feb. 23 car crash in Brooklyn. It is possible that the netminder could be cleared to accompany the Blueshirts on their three-game trip to Dallas, Colorado and Arizona that includes a back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday against the Stars and Avalanche, respectively.