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Kakko Takes First Steps as Rangers' Prospects Hit the Ice

by Michael Obernauer

STAMFORD, Conn. -- The past week has been life-changing for Kaapo Kakko, and he has spent that week under a spotlight that has never been so bright in his life. He arrived in Vancouver with most of the eyes and cameras trained on him and one other prospect. On Friday night he stepped onto the mantle, and into the Blueshirt, as the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft. On Sunday he stepped foot in New York City for the very first time.

Monday, then, was a chance for him to return to a place that has always been familiar, somewhere he knows he always belongs: Kakko was back on ice again, and for the first time wearing his new Rangers colors.

He has won three major international tournaments in the past year; he has broken records in his home country's domestic league; he fulfilled his dream of being drafted into the NHL. Where does Kaapo Kakko go from here?

"It's easy. My next goal is to play in the NHL next season," Kakko said on Monday. "So that's it."

Kakko was speaking after the 2019 Rangers Prospect Development Camp kicked off on Monday morning at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. There are 37 players on the roster for the weeklong camp, seven of whom were drafted by the club on Saturday afternoon, and one other, Kakko, who was the Blueshirts' prize in Friday night's first round.

He is the highest draft pick the Rangers have had in more than 50 years, and the anticipation of his arrival only continued to build in the weeks since the Blueshirts struck gold the Draft Lottery to move into the No. 2 spot - reaching a fever pitch by Friday, when Kakko slipped on the Blueshirt for the first time with thousands watching and cheering back at Madison Square Garden.

Video: Prospect Camp Day 1: Kaapo Kakko

On Monday, he added skates to the red-white-and-blue ensemble. It was the first time Kakko had been on ice since skating around with the World Championship trophy along with his Finnish teammates on May 26 in Bratislava. The first on-ice session was less than a half-hour old when Kakko, during a shooting drill among the forwards, edged around a cone, took a pass at the circle, and flicked a bullet off the underside of the crossbar and in. ("Are you kidding me?" one fan watching from the bleachers said.)

"Last time on the ice was in the final game in the Championships, so it wasn't a so-normal feeling," Kakko said of shaking off a touch of rust. "But it's good. … I think it's coming. (This week) it's ice and it's meetings. So yeah, it's good."

No doubt it was a good sight for Jeff Gorton, who returned from his own weekend in Vancouver with eight new players in his pocket, and now has selected 18 times over the past two drafts - four of those in the first round alone. All four of those first-rounders - Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, K'Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist - were on the ice on Monday and will skate together this week in Stamford.

"Listen, it's always a great day when you draft a bunch of guys and you see them on the ice for the first time," the General Manager said. "But obviously we've made a number of picks, and high picks, over the last few years, so to see them all on the ice in these two groups, it's exciting. They're just doing the skills and just getting acclimated, but to see them all in the same place, and see the level of players that I think we've acquired, I think is exciting for everybody."

Monday's sessions also gave the Rangers their first look at a fourth-rounder from 2014, who is over in North America for the first time. Igor Shesterkin, the 23-year-old goaltender, has played the last three full seasons with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, finishing this year with a mind-boggling 1.11 GAA and .953 save percentage. Shesterkin - who along with Kravtsov signed their first professional contracts on May 3 - spoke humbly about officially signing with the Rangers and about what it will take for him to crack their roster in the future. "I need to get stronger," he said - and he couldn't resist a comparison with this year's No. 2 pick.

Video: Prospect Camp Day 1: Igor Shesterkin

"Kakko says he needs to get stronger, and look at him," Shesterkin said, with the translation help of Nick Bobrov, the Rangers' Director of European Scouting. "So I have a long way to go."

Kakko has all week to make an impression, and all summer to build on the kind of strength he has been showing off at international tournaments throughout the year - but there has to be room in there for rest after a heavy hockey workload in his 17-year-old season. Kakko played 45 games for TPS Turku at the top level of Finland's Liiga - with 22 goals to break Aleksander Barkov's record for players in their first draft-eligible year - plus his appearances at the World U18 Championships, the World Junior Championships, and the World Championships - all of which the Finns won, meaning that they played the maximum number of games, and under the highest pressure, at every tournament.

"I have played a lot, so many games," Kakko said on Monday. "I think it's time to take a rest after this week." He said he will return to Finland after the week to get a little of that rest and then to ramp back up his summer training; his plans for the latter part of summer remain up in the air.

As for any the expectations on what any of the players here this week can accomplish, Gorton said: "You get glimpses of skating and skill and how they carry themselves, and you see them off the ice, you see what kind of power they have in some of the testing that we do. These guys are coming in trying to get adjusted to pro hockey, and we're giving them a glimpse of how we do things, and we're getting a little taste of what they're like too, and where they're at and how far they could be away.

"They're not playing against our NHL players, we keep that in mind; we'll get to that in NHL camp. But for them, sometimes this is your first look at guys and I think they want to make a good impression."

In the meantime, as he gets to know his fellow Ranger prospects this week, Kakko will take as much time as he can to get to know this new hockey home. He was greeted by Rangers fans chanting his name at the airport when he touched down on Sunday afternoon; between then and Monday's on-ice session he got to do his first bit of NYC sightseeing.

"It was so nice," Kakko said. "I was walking downtown last night. It was so big and nice."

When he was asked whether he took in the sights thinking that New York could be his hometown for a long time to come, Kakko said: "I hope so. I hope so next season."

One more thing for the Rangers to look forward to.

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