Hartnett: Rangers’ Kakko Looks Every Bit Like A Star In The Making


If you split Kaapo Kakko’s season into two halves, the numbers tell a story. The 18-year-old Finn’s first eight NHL games were a learning process.

Kakko only managed one goal and one assist through his first eight contests against NHL pros. In the eight games that followed, the 6-foot-3 wing scored five goals and added an assist.

There is a clear difference in his confidence, puck control and execution. On Tuesday, Kakko recorded his first career multigoal game, against a heated rival in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Following the 3-2 overtime win, coach David Quinn praised Kakko’s “swagger.”

Kakko netted the game’s opening goal on a breakaway effort when he split Pittsburgh defensemen Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson after receiving a tape-to-tap feed from Brendan Lemieux. While bearing down one-on-one on Matt Murray, Kakko went forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand and beat the Penguins’ No. 1 netminder with a dazzling backhander.

Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko scores the game-winning goal past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray during overtime on Nov. 12, 2019, at Madison Square Garden. Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Images

Pittsburgh made a second-period charge, dominating the middle frame. Goals by Schultz and Jared McCann evened the contest after Adam Fox’s goal had given the Blueshirts a 2-0 first-intermission advantage. A scoreless third period pushed the contest into overtime, and the Penguins began OT with the lion’s share of possession and put the Rangers on their heels.

Then one play changed everything. Fox started an odd-man rush and unleashed a nifty pass to Kakko, who shoveled in the game-winning goal. The Garden erupted.

Kakko joined a list of 13 different 18-year-olds to have scored a regular-season overtime goal. Among some of the names are Steve Yzerman, Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby and countryman Patrik Laine.

After 16 games, Kakko leads all 18-year-olds with six goals this season. His six goals and eight points are already the second most of any 18-year-old in Rangers history. He is currently on pace to finish his rookie season with 30 goals.

If Kakko is already this good at age 18 – then it’s going to be pretty scary for the rest of the league seven years from now when he’s in his prime and has added strength and variety to his flourishing skillset.

Coming over from Liiga (Finland’s highest league), the expectation was that the Rangers would be getting a can’t-miss talent and absolute game-changer in Kakko. At 18, he’s already delivering on his promise and looks every bit a franchise player in the making.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.