Hartnett: Kakko laid groundwork for strong second season in uneven debut as a teen


The hype surrounding Kaapo Kakko’s 2019-20 rookie season created unrealistically wild expectations. Career trajectories of teenage hockey players often vary. Just because Kakko didn’t produce an Ovechkin-like or Matthews-like rookie campaign doesn’t mean that his career is going to fizzle like Nail Yakupov.

Ugly deep dive metrics and pedestrian base statistics aside, there were enough flashes of raw talent to suggest that Kakko is more likely to become an NHL staying power than a flameout.

Kakko’s most encouraging run of play came during point-less, yet vigorous showings during the 2020 qualifying round playoffs. The young Finn demanded the puck on his stick, drove hard to the net and fired off shots with confidence. His play caught David Quinn’s attention, and the bench boss responded by handing Kakko the fourth-most even-strength playoff minutes of all Rangers forwards.

When you package his spirited playoff cameo with his regular season finish of three points in four games, there’s a belief that Kakko turned the corner at the right time and laid down the foundation for a successful sophomore season.

Sure, there will be plenty of skeptics considering his ordinary total of 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 regular season games. Yet, the path to consistency isn’t always a straight line. It doesn’t always click together immediately. A good reference is Rangers teammate Chris Kreider.

Kreider logged just three points in his first 23 NHL games during the 2012-13 regular season. You might remember some fans becoming impatient because of Kreider’s impressive combination of hulking strength, blazing speed and sniping ability not translating into game-to-game consistency and the expected point totals.

Oh, he’s got all the tools – why can’t he put it all together? That’s a familiar complaint attached to Kakko, Kreider and countless prospects before them. By Dec. 2013 of season two, Kreider silenced his doubters by recording 13 points in 15 November games. That preceded another 13 points in 15 playoff games as Kreider played a large hand in guiding the Blueshirts to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

It sounds simple – but sometimes, it just takes time. Let’s not forget that Kakko won’t turn 20 until next February. Most 19-year-olds are still developing in college or overseas or are settling in at the minor-league level.

Kakko looked like he belonged in the playoffs at age 19. That’s not something any ordinary 19-year-old can accomplish. Maybe it’s time for his critics to readjust their expectations?

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