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Kakko impressing Rangers despite lack of scoring

Coach, teammates pleased with composure shown by No. 2 pick in 2019 NHL Draft

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Kaapo Kakko's English is improving, and his comfort level and confidence are growing. Now, two games into his NHL career, the desire the New York Rangers rookie forward has to produce is slowly rising to a level matching the hype that preceded him. 

"I want to score, so there is a little bit of pressure, but we have 80 games left," Kakko said following practice Tuesday. "I think it's coming. I know everybody was thinking that I'm going to score in my first game. That didn't happen. Maybe next game. Hopefully."

If it doesn't happen against the Edmonton Oilers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; SN, MSG, NHL.TV), the Rangers (2-0-0) certainly won't panic or begin to wonder what's wrong with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

They love what they've seen from Kakko in wins against the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators. Though he has no points, he has three shots on goal and is averaging 14:23 of ice time per game (15:31 in the opener against the Jets and 13:54 against the Senators), playing 18 shifts in each game. 

Coach David Quinn needed one regular-season game to conclude Kakko will almost never be a concern for the Rangers.

"I don't think he's going to have many bad nights," Quinn said after the season-opening 6-4 home win against Winnipeg on Oct. 3. "He may not have a great night, but he's not going to have a bad night. Right away that makes you a pro, and that's one of the things we talk about. It's not so much how good is your good, it's how bad is your bad. A game might end and you might think, 'Oh, Kaapo was OK,' and that will be his bad night. If that's the case, he's going to have a [heck] of a career."

Top-line center Mika Zibanejad, who was named the NHL First Star of the Week on Monday, referred to Kakko's overall game when asked what makes him confident the rookie will deliver on his potential sooner rather than later.

"He's more ready than most of the 18-year-olds that come over here, just the way he plays, the physicality that he has, not just hitting but just protecting the puck and playing," Zibanejad said. "I'm really, really looking forward to what he can do."

But first Kakko must figure out the nuances of the NHL game. Two games aren't enough, but he is trying to be a quick study.

"The game is so fast, that's the first thing," Kakko said. "Sometimes you need to throw the puck in deep. That wasn't my game last season. I need to do that sometimes."

Video: Kaapo Kakko ranks No. 2 on the Top Prospects List

Kakko's strength is his ability to hold onto the puck, protect it, draw defenders to him, spin off them and make plays with his head up. But to be successful at it in the NHL, there are aspects of the game he needs to master.

For example, forward Chris Kreider mentioned Kakko's need to realize when an aggressive double team is coming at him and how to turn that into an advantage.

Kakko didn't face a lot of aggressive double teams when playing in his native Finland because games are played on an international ice surface that is 15 feet wider than the NHL rink. With more space to cover, it's harder to double and easier for a player with Kakko's skill to feel it coming and make a play before it gets to him.

"Here," Kreider said, "you've got to know the double is coming before the double is coming." 

Kreider said Kakko should pick it up quickly.

"He thrives with one guy on his back," Kreider said. "The minute he gets comfortable with that double coming, it's going to be scary." 

Quinn also wants Kakko to move when he has the puck. He said he tends to slow down when he holds onto it, which makes him an easier target and will lead to more dump-ins instead of playmaking.

"It's a lot easier to slow down than play catch-up," Quinn said. "I have no problem with him holding it, but he has to move once he gets it, think about going north with it and then slowing it down if that's the right play."

Kakko will have time to work on it, with plenty of rope given to him by Quinn and the Rangers to improve. They won't put pressure on him to instantly be the player they believe he will eventually become, and they're already taking measures to make sure Kakko isn't too hard on himself.

"One of the things he and I talked about [Monday] is, 'Don't put too much pressure on yourself, it's two games,'" Quinn said. "Mika went nine games last year [without scoring] and he ended up with 30. … It's the challenge for every 18-year-old, they all judge themselves by points. He's going to have to find a way to feel good about his performance when he doesn't score."

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