Hartnett: Rangers Not Putting Struggling Kaapo Kakko In Position To Succeed


Following an erratic western swing, the Rangers returned home on Monday and lost 5-2 to the Nashville Predators. Though the Rangers’ power play failed to cash in any of their four man-advantage opportunities, the controversially-officiated game caused the faithful at The Garden to hound the men in stripes for 60 minutes.

A full column could easily be dedicated to why it was one of the poorest-officiated contests in recent memory. Brendan Lemieux’s 10-minute game misconduct for pushing Predators captain Roman Josi will go down as one of the most farcical calls of the decade.

The final score was inflated by a pair of Nashville empty-netters, and a combination of the officiating and some cruel puck luck denied the Blueshirts of an overtime-forcing goal. Small margins and inches often decide hockey games. An Artemi Panarin shot that was ruled not to have completely crossed the goal line summed up the Rangers’ night.

Another factor that contributed to the loss was a tame performance from second overall pick Kaapo Kakko. Head coach David Quinn opted to demote the highly-touted Finn to the fourth line. Across 11:28 total ice time, Kakko failed to record a point and did not register a shot on goal even though he was handed 4:40 of power play time.

The whole chicken and egg argument about Kakko’s usage has divided the fan base throughout the season. I’m inclined to think that Quinn’s spin-the-wheel, Tom Renney-style constant line reshuffling isn’t helping an 18-year-old who is adjusting to the North American game and the demands of playing against NHL-level opposition in the world’s fastest league.

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

On Monday, Kakko spent much of the night paired with Brendan Smith and Brett Howden. Smith, a converted defenseman and Howden, a 21-year-old center who isn’t the finished product have combined for 14 points – each have dressed for all 33 games this season.

Kakko deserves to be put in the best position to accelerate his potential. That isn’t going to be accomplished by playing him alongside a limited offensive player in Smith and Howden, whose development might be best aided by receiving increased minutes in minor-league Hartford.

But the counter-argument to all this is that rookies have to earn their minutes and that whether he’s paired with Howden and Smith or Panarin and Ryan Strome, Kakko hasn’t done enough lately to deserve a consistent top-six role.

Through his first 31 NHL games, Kakko has tallied six goals and eight assists. Nine of his 14 points have come on the power play. So, it’s understandable why some fans are alarmed by his 15-game goalless drought, three consecutive pointless games and his recent struggles on the power play – which should be his bread and butter.

Quinn isn’t the type of coach to afford Kakko preferential treatment and no one is saying to play him with the top guys just because of his second overall pick reputation. But really, when it comes down to it, the Rangers have so much of their future invested in Kakko. Wasting his talents on a fourth line that doesn’t get him the puck and frankly, doesn’t possess the skill to raise him out of this slump, isn’t good for anybody.

That’s why I’m a firm believer that there’s no justification for playing Kakko on the fourth line. He’s not a fourth-line talent. He doesn’t belong in a limited, 11-minute role with a pair of line-mates who, on a more competitive team, would be playing in the AHL.

I get that Kakko is playing far from his best hockey at the moment and that Quinn doesn’t make exceptions about his “earn-it” stance. I believe that Quinn is doing what he thinks is right for this team and for Kakko’s long-term development and learning process – but development can only occur if the player is placed in a position to succeed.

Kakko will only stagnate if Quinn persists with the fourth line tough love. This demotion must be short-termism, otherwise Quinn will be responsible for holding back his best young forward’s path to stardom.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey