Breaking Down Kaapo Kakko's Historically Bad Rookie Season
A deep dive into what went wrong and what it means moving forward.
Before the 2019-20 season, it seemed like a sure thing that second overall pick Kaapo Kakko was going to make a big impact as a rookie. By betting odds, he was the 2nd-most likely Calder Trophy winner; seven of seventeen Sportsnet analysts predicted that he would win the award, making him the favourite over Cale Makar (five votes). This all made a lot of sense considering what scouts had said about him leading up to the 2019 draft (per TSN.ca):
One thing most everyone agrees with is that Kakko may be poised to make a more meaningful immediate contribution than Hughes next season in the NHL, simply because he’s so much bigger and so much more physically mature.
“Kakko’s a man,” said a scout. “Hughes still has to grow, to get stronger. It’s possible, for the first year or two, Kakko will have an edge...”
Because of Kakko’s physical strength and success against men in Finland’s SM-Liiga, most saw his game translating to the NHL right away.
But that didn’t happen. His counting stats were disappointing - 23 points mostly racked up on the powerplay landed him nowhere near the Calder race. But they were nothing compared to his advanced stats, which paint a picture of a player who was not even close to NHL-ready.
This piece is a deep dive into Kakko’s season. First, I provide a full overview of his stats including analysis through Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM isolate model, Corey Sznajder’s microstats, and HockeyViz’s shot maps. Then we get into the eye test, both from the regular season and the Ranger’s brief trip to the bubble. This section will include plenty of game tape as well as a diagnosis on my part of what exactly went wrong on the ice that led to such horrific results.
Profiling Kaapo Kakko Analytically
There isn’t really a nice way to say this: analytically speaking, Kappo Kakko did not only have one of the worst rookie seasons by a top five pick of the past decade, or one of the worst rookie seasons period. He had the worst even strength season that anybody has had since 2007-08 as measured by his individual impact on scoring chances for and against.
RAPM, a stat adapted for hockey by EvolvingWild, estimates how a player individually impacts on-ice stats by adjusting for stuff like teammates, competition, zone starts, etc. Here’s some of the company Kakko keeps at the bottom of the all-time single-season ranking:
Luke Gazdic was more of a playdriver in a season where he had four points and 127 PIM than projected Calder-contender Kakko was. Luke Gazdic. Not only that: the gap between Kakko and Gazdic is as large as the one between Gazdic and the 54th lowest player. Not only was Kakko bad this season, no one has ever had a worse season “analytically” than him since stats became available. By a significant margin.
And look, this isn’t limited to fancy stats either. Kakko had one single primary assist at 5v5 this season - two fewer than Marc Staal, who actually played fewer minutes than he did. Seven 5v5 goals isn’t league-worst bad, but it still stinks.
The main reason Kakko’s numbers are bad is that his regular line with Brett Howden and Filip Chytil was the worst trio in the league. Their 39% share of scoring chances (measured by expected goals) is ugly enough, but they scored 16% of the goals when on the ice, by far the lowest rate in the NHL this season. There was absolutely no excuse for playing Kakko with Brett Howden at all, let alone for 78% of his 5v5 ice time. It’s an appalling fit: Howden can’t carry the puck, isn’t a great passer, isn’t active on the forecheck, isn’t a threat to shoot, doesn’t retrieve pucks, and can’t clean up rebound opportunities. There is nothing he does that complements a puck-carrying shot-first player like Kakko in any way.
Both Kakko and Howden had better results apart from one another, but Kakko’s numbers away from Howden were still terrible. Every time Kakko did brief spot duty on a line, they got clobbered. The only line combination in which Kakko played over 20 minutes that finished with a goals for rate that was even approaching positive was when he subbed in for Jesper Fast on the Panarin line, and that unit was still much worse with him than without him.
How did this happen? We’ll get to the eye test part soon, but first we should look at his microstats. These are manually tracked by Corey Sznajder, who watches countless games with a fine-toothed comb and collects mountains of data from each one. This visualization ranks Kakko in a few of the tracked categories compared to other forwards:
Kakko takes a decent number of shots and is a somewhat efficient transition player, but his weaknesses are more evident than anything. His in-zone play was essentially non-existent aside from shooting the puck, as he very infrequently set his teammates up for shots off the cycle and contributed very little on the forecheck.
Those shots were not exactly grade A chances either. His average unblocked shot attempt was worth 0.06 expected goals (estimated 6% chance of going in), which ranked 208th out of 236 forwards with over 100 attempts. Here’s a map of where his shot attempts came from, courtesy of HockeyViz:
29.1% of these attempts were actually blocked (3rd highest among those with over 100 attempts). None of this is very good news for a shoot-first player.
So the stats are dire. Let’s get to the almighty eye test - although this is more of an eye autopsy.
Eye Test I: Regular Season
After watching several games throughout the regular season, one thing stood out right away: Kakko wasn’t super active in the play. He frequently went very long stretches without getting any puck touches, and spent the vast majority of his (limited) offensive zone time hanging around away from the play waiting for a pass that seldom came. When his linemates were cycling he was rarely an active participant.
But things didn’t get much better when he did get a hold of the puck.
Kakko’s two biggest issues are connected.
1. He Has Tunnel Vision With the Puck
I don’t recall having seen a player with Kakko’s pedigree who so thoroughly lacked the ability to see the ice and make passes. Unless a player is point blank in front of him, it is almost out of the question that Kakko will be able to get him the puck. When carrying it in the zone or receiving a pass himself, the three most likely outcomes are a forced shot from the perimeter, a turnover, or a puck flung in the general direction of where a teammate might be; finding an open linemate is a distant fourth. This can even be kind of funny; if you watch Kakko’s assists, the majority of them come off rebounds rather than passes.
I don’t think this comes from a lack of innate passing ability, as on the powerplay he can occasionally connect cross-ice. I think it’s all about space. On smaller ice against better opponents than in Finland, Kakko does not have the time to survey the ice and find an open pass. Justifiably lacking the confidence to take his time, flinging the puck in the general direction of a dangerous area (the net or the slot) is almost always his preferred option, and it almost never works out.
2. He Can’t Make Sustainable Possession Plays
Almost everything Kakko does is one-and-done, if he can even get to one. Something that especially stood out to me that he’s an absolute turnover machine. NHL statkeepers somehow charged him with only 17 total giveaways this season, but if you watch him play it is immediately clear that this doesn’t paint an accurate picture of his puck management problems. When Kakko gets the puck with any amount of pressure on him, it is almost certain that play will go the other way in a matter of seconds. He also struggles to receive passes. Here’s six clips from 10 minutes of TOI in a game against the Jets:
Only when he has the time and space to build up momentum is he able to hold onto it, but this ultimately tends to lead to outside shots or turnovers off pass attempts. I compiled a number of examples in the video below where he makes plays that clearly worked in SM-Liiga, but they either end in a very low-percentage scoring chance, a turnover, or getting pushed to the outside:
I didn’t notice anything too glaring about Kakko’s in-zone defensive play - he didn’t seem particularly passive or lazy or anything like that. I think his issues stem mostly from puck possession problems: the Rangers simply do not have the puck very much when he’s on the ice.
Eye Test II: The Playoffs
A big part of the narrative surrounding Kakko recently (particularly among Rangers fans) is that he looked like a new player in the bubble. I decided to watch each of the three games to judge this for myself. This section will go game-by-game, including my observations of each as well as a 90 to 120 second compilation (powered by InStat) so you can also draw your own conclusions.
What I’m seeing from Kakko is an improvement in his physical skills, especially his skating and puck protection. He draws a minor penalty on a play where he’s keeping the puck away from an opponent, and there are a few other plays where he pushes off a defender effectively. He also seems a step faster than he previously was, and finds himself on a few odd man rushes - not something I recall seeing in previous viewings. Other than that, most of his play is pretty consistent with the regular season: not much offence outside of the perimeter, not too much offensive pressure, and some puck control issues. But he’s definitely much more noticeable out there.
Game two is quite similar. Again, we see some impressive entries, some encouraging episodes of strength down low, and improved skating. But his unwillingness and inability to use his teammates effectively is still an Achilles’ heel. When he wins battles along the wall, the outcome is a low-percentage shot thrown at the net or what could very generously be called a pass attempt flung towards the middle of the ice. His tunnel vision still limits his ability to be an effective complementary player. I asked friend of the newsletter and player development coach Jack Han to take a look at this clip:
0:58: Very good entry - good backhand catch between CAR's defensive layers in the NZ, then he changes sides with a carry while building speed. Once he enters the OZ I'd like him to cut back at the hashmarks and find a play to Panarin rather than play by himself and throw a low-percentage shot into the goalie.
1:32: The high-end play here would be a sharp cut to the left + a change of side pass to NYR20 on the far side. Instead he skates himself into trouble and has to chip the puck in.
I was excited for this one, because this is the only game where Kakko finished with an xGF% above 50%. What I got was, once again, more of the same. Some great isolated plays - the takeaway at 0:40, the zone entry at 1:00 - but the same forced shots, the same giveaways, the same struggle to create without having plenty of room to build up momentum.
I was disappointed overall by why I saw from Kakko in the bubble. He was certainly more physically impressive than he was in the regular season, and looked better with Strome and Panarin/Kreider than he did with Howden (admittedly, so would I). But his game is still just as fundamentally immature and limited as it was before the hiatus. Three games is a small sample, and I saw little that indicated that he had broken out in any meaningful sense.
Simply put, Kaapo Kakko should not have played in the NHL past the nine game mark of the 2019-20 season. Most scouts, enamoured with his experience against men and weight-to-height ratio, underestimated how much his game would be suffocated by how much less time and space there is in the NHL. This should have been a transition season where he learned to adjust in Hartford, but instead it was a confidence-draining catastrophe. That’s on the Rangers.
When you watch Kakko you can see the outline of his pre-draft scouting reports - good hands, solid shot, great puck protection. But he simply does not have the speed or playmaking to play the way he wants to and be effective at the NHL level; NHL defencemen are just too smart to let him dance into the slot and generate offence single-handedly, and he doesn’t have a plan B when he runs out of room. He will look a lot better to the eye as his physical skills continue to develop, but it will take more than that for him to become an actual positive contributor at even strength.
This is especially true given the realities of the Rangers’ lineup heading into the 2020-21 season. Good lottery fortune and questionable roster moves have both guaranteed Kakko a quality left wing linemate and likely forced him into a top six role. If he plays with Alexis Lafreniere or Artemi Panarin, he will have to put himself in the best possible position to take advantage of their elite hockey I.Q. and playmaking ability - that means retrieving pucks, battling down low, and getting in excellent scoring position. It also means being a lot more responsible with the puck and trying to support their possession rather than trying to do it all himself. The tools are all there with Kakko - he’s not a bust yet. It’s up to him and the Rangers to turn things around.