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Kaapo Kakko is Right at Home in Return to Vancouver

Rookie Revisits Draft Day & World Juniors Glory as Blueshirts Arrive in B.C.

by Michael Obernauer

VANCOUVER -- For a player who comes into the National Hockey League at 18 years old, there is so much that is new, so much to learn and adapt to, all new people and all new places.

But this city? Kaapo Kakko knows Vancouver. He does just fine in this town.

Kakko has brought along a posse this time, traveling with his Ranger teammates back to a city that holds some treasured memories for him, and on Saturday night when the Blueshirts face off against the Canucks at Rogers Arena, it will be Kakko's return to the scene of two of the indelible moments of his young life.

The last time Kakko was here, back in late June, he arrived in this Canadian city 5,000 miles from his home as one of the premier talents among the 2019 NHL Draft class. He left here a Ranger.

"Of course it is a special place for me because that Draft, it's something that is only one time in my life," said Kakko, who on June 21 was selected at No. 2 in that Draft by the Blueshirts, the franchise's first Top 2 pick since Brad Park in 1966. "There was so much of everything, lots of interviews, and my English wasn't so good then -- it's not so good right now but it's getting better. But there was free time for me, too -- almost five days I was there.

"I enjoyed it; it's a great, great moment in my life, and so exciting because after that I know my new team."

In the ensuing six months his new team has gotten to know him well, too, and is loving the ability and the potential that resides in their young rookie. Kakko has played in 36 of the Rangers' 40 games this season; on Thursday night against the Flames in Calgary he scored his seventh goal, most of any 18-year-old in the NHL. And he added an assist, too, making it four multi-point games so far in his rookie season.

Kakko, like anyone, always would like to add to those numbers, but perhaps even a bit more so on Saturday. "It's good place for me," he said of Rogers Arena, "and hopefully I can maybe score a goal over there."

Among the myriad reasons his new team wanted him so badly back in June was because of what Kakko demonstrated in his previous visit to Vancouver, some six months before the Draft. That's when Kakko came to British Columbia with his Finnish teammates for the World Junior Championships as a 17-year-old in the Under-20 tournament -- no major stretch for a kid who already was playing against men that season in the top flight of the Finnish league, and later in the World Championships.

After two wins and two losses in the group stage, the Finns stunned the host Canadians, and everyone at Rogers Arena, by tying the quarterfinal in the last minute of regulation, then winning it in overtime; then they pummeled Switzerland in the semis to book a date with the United States in the final, right back at the home rink of the Canucks.

Finland seized a 2-0 lead in the third period of the final, but the U.S. scored twice in 1:46 to tie. "They scored two goals so fast," Kakko recalled. "It was so tight, that game."

With 86 seconds remaining, Kakko was setting a screen in front when he spun away from his defender, dug for a rebound and teed it up or himself with his skate, then tapped it in on his backhand -- the gold medal-winning goal.

After the game, the Finnish goaltender, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, said "I can't think of a better guy to score that goal than Kaapo," and defenseman Oskari Laaksonen called Kakko "an unbelievable player."

"He showed today that he's a guy of big games, that he loves to play in the big games," Laaksonen added.

Kakko had five points in seven games in the tournament, including an assist in the semifinal and the all-important goal in the final. Looking back on it this week, Kakko said it was the biggest goal he has scored in his young hockey life.

"Lucky bounce for me," he added humbly, "but a huge goal, and a great, great feeling.

"Yeah, it's the biggest," he said, adding that he had never been happier to see one go in. "I think all of Finland was so happy," he said.
 
Bear in mind, Vancouver is 10 hours behind Helsinki, so the final between the Finns and Americans faced off at 3 o'clock in the morning back home. No matter, Kakko said with a shake of his head: "People were watching."

People have been watching him all his life, never more so than in the last year and change, during which time he helped Finland win the Under-18 world title in April 2018, the World Junior Championships last January and the World Championships in May -- beating out Connor McDavid as the youngest player ever to win all three -- then took a starring role at the June Draft, and made his heavily anticipated Rangers debut at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 3.

With his 16 points in 36 games he already has matched Manny Malhotra's franchise record for scoring by an 18-year-old, and needs one more goal to match Malhotra's record eight in 1998-99. (Malhotra could see him do it in person, too: the ex-Ranger is in his third season as a Canucks assistant coach.)

And if this visit to Vancouver, or the current World Junior Championships underway right now in the Czech Republic -- the Finns are back in the semifinals, having dispatched the Americans again to face Canada on Saturday -- makes Kakko at all wistful for his brief time playing with the juniors, his linemates for the past couple weeks are not so far removed from the age bracket: His center is 20-year-old Fil Chytil, the left winger 21-year-old Brett Howden. On Thursday night in Calgary those kids were perhaps the Rangers' best line -- "all those guys," David Quinn said after the game. "Those guys had a good night."

As for Kakko, the Rangers Head Coach said that as the season has progressed he has witnessed "a visible change" in his rookie winger in terms of how hard he is on himself, how he might take a setback to heart, but also in his growing understanding of his responsibilities in this new league in all three zones on the ice.

At the end of the day, though, Kakko is an 18-year-old with only 36 NHL games under his belt and his entire career ahead of him. Where he is in his development is right about where Quinn expected him to be.

"And I know a lot of people didn't," Quinn said on Thursday. "It gets a little crazy, the expectations for these guys when they get drafted, and I think everybody has to take a step back and realize, the Connor McDavids and the Sidney Crosbys, those guys are outliers, guys that can step in this League and have an immediate impact -- the Jack Eichels of the world. Ninety percent of the time, these guys that come in at 18, they're going to go through some growing pains.

"He's going to be a hell of a player for us."

Kakko, for his part, said that he is learning every day, and trying to learn every day, and that he harbored no illusions that his first season in the NHL would be anything like a breeze -- including the grind of the schedule and the travel, which has the Rangers playing one more game on the West Coast, on Saturday night in a familiar rink for Kakko, before heading home.

"Before the season, I know it's 82 games, it's so much," Kakko said. "In Finland we have 60 games, and I played 45 last season in the Finnish League.

"But I don't know," he added with a shrug. "I love to play hockey, so for me, it's good."

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