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Rangers Select Kaapo Kakko 2nd Overall: 'Couldn't Be More Excited'

Jeff Gorton, John Davidson call high-octane Finnish winger a potential cornerstone piece

by Jess Isner

VANCOUVER -- It has been exactly 73 days since New York won the lottery and drew the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. On Friday night in Vancouver, the Rangers finally got their guy. 

On Friday, the Rangers selected Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko out of Liiga's TPS, and after 73 days of waiting, General Manager Jeff Gorton could finally let himself truly, honestly think about what a future with Kaapo Kakko looks like for his hockey club. 

"We got a chance at a special player," Gorton said. "We all saw what he did over the course of the season. We saw that he's won a few championships and excelled at every one of them. It's an exciting day for us. To win the lottery almost seems like months ago, and here we are today to finally call the name. It's just an exciting day."

When he heard his name called by Gorton, Kakko was nervous and anxious and knew in the very back of his mind that he has never even stepped foot in the city that will soon become his new home. But as pulled on a Blueshirt for the very first time in front of a crowd of NHL personnel and fans at Rogers Arena, it just felt right.  

"It's such a good feeling," Kakko said, "and so nice to be a part of the New York Rangers." 

Following the very first draft selection of his tenure as Rangers president, John Davidson did not mince words when reflecting on the caliber of player he had acquired. 

"The Rangers got themselves a strong part of the foundation going forward," he said. "A young man that has a lot of character, a young man that's got a great future ahead of him, and I just really couldn't be more excited about where we're sitting right now."

The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Kakko's reputation precedes him as he prepares to embark upon the next stage of his playing career. Earlier this year, at just 18 years old, he became the youngest player in the history of the sport to win successive gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship, the U-18 Championship and the IIHF World Championship. 

Throughout the 2018-19 season, he established himself as one of the premier prospects in his draft class as he tallied 22 goals with Liiga, the most goals scored by any player under the age of 18 in the history of Finland's top league. The previous record-holder? Aleksander Barkov. At season's end, he fittingly was named Liiga's Rookie of the Year.

But it was in May, at the Men's World Championship in Slovakia, that Kakko truly established himself as a star. He scored highlight reel goal after highlight reel goal against professionals - many an NHL star among them - during Finland's improbable run toward the gold medal. 

"He doesn't really have a weakness," Davidson said. "He can play wing and he can play center, which is always a good thing. He can score. He can be a playmaker. A lot of times, when you get both a very skilled player that has size that has speed, you go, 'Whoa, this is pretty good. We've got a heck of a player here.' A lot of times when you study players, you look for weaknesses, and you don't see a weakness here, especially with the No. 2 pick. This is pretty exciting."

The Rangers have been watching Kakko for a long time. They knew they were getting a special player on Friday night. Finally, it's official: Kakko has arrived. 

"He does a lot of things well," Gorton said. "He creates space for himself with his body. He's able to use his body to shield players and find himself a little extra time, which other guys aren't able to do. He can make plays really quickly and identify where they are, and he's a threat to score from far out, which is unique in this day and age. So there's a lot he can do, and in the corners, I think he likes contact. Once you hit him, he rolls off you and it feels like he has you and he's got you beat with a step to the net. He's got a lot of little plays like that that are fun to watch."

Undeniable skill aside, there's something else the Rangers brass loves about Kakko, something that can't be taught: His swagger. He's just a kid who loves the game, and nothing makes him happier than showing off what he can do - never to the point of conceit, though. It's as though he simply gets a kick out of putting on a show. 

"This guy - he's got confidence," Gorton said. "He's so strong. Those goal-scorers, they want to score. You can see it in their determination when they're playing. You just can't take your eyes off him when he's playing. It's an exciting opportunity for our fans to see a guy like that."

Gorton and the Rangers know what they're getting in Kakko: an extremely skilled, physically mature, raw talent. But still, they will be cautious to avoid rushing him toward the next step. He is still just 18 years old. He is still moving to a new country, a new home, as a kid. 

Patience is a virtue that will be a prerequisite in Kakko's development, ready as he may seem to make the leap to the next level.

"We still have to be careful and do things right here with anybody that we draft or sign or who comes in," Davidson said. "You don't want to put players in a position where they take too many steps backwards. We want them to get better and better and better. There's a chance he'll play, for sure, but we have to wait, calm down and let this all happen. 

"Don't forget, he's young. He's young. Let's not jump ahead of ourselves too far. Let's let things fall into place."

Over the course of the last week, Kakko has gotten quite familiar with the Rangers front office, particularly with the help of Finnish scout Mikko Eloranta, who has been tracking Kakko's exploits for years and traveled to see him in Finland three times this past season. 

After that group called Kakko's name on Friday night, he shook each of their hands as they all offered words of congratulations and encouragement.

As for what they said?  

"I don't remember," Kakko said with a smile, adding that the nerves and the excitement may have interfered a bit. 

When the draft ends, Kakko will make the trek to New York for the very first time to take part in the Rangers' development camp. He doesn't know quite what to expect from his new city, but he does know one thing about it.

"I think it's a little bit bigger than Turku," he said of his hometown on the southwest coast of Finland. "But I think from everything that I hear, it's good and so nice. A big city."

Though familiarizing himself with New York might take some time, it should take considerably less for Kakko to familiarize himself with the Rangers roster. He already counts goaltender Alexandar Georgiev - who played for TPS from 2014-17 - among his acquaintances, and he has long admired the work of Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist, center Mika Zibanejad and 2017 first-round draft pick Filip Chytil. 

"Of course I know the players," Kakko said, "and it's such a good team." 

With Friday's first round behind them, the Rangers' work in Vancouver is far from over. On Saturday, they will make seven additional selections in Rounds 2-7 of the draft. After that comes development camp, then free agency, and then the 2019-20 campaign ticks closer and closer. 

But at least for one night, they will let themselves enjoy the fact that a significant component of their future is, at long last, in place.

"I would love to see him be a cornerstone for us," Davidson said. "There's something special about this. When you talk to him, he's very even. He knows he's good. He has a chance to be really, really, really good, but I don't want to sit here and say he's the best we've ever had in New York in the history of the Rangers. You don't do that to young people. You let them come in there, and he's going to show his way. 

"He's going to be a really, really good player."

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