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Kaapo Kakko is on the Market – Four Reasons Why Calgary is the Goldilocks Destination

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It’s been no secret this season that Conroy has been dangling his pending unrestricted free agents in order to target younger current NHL players on other teams.  

Whether it’s his first trade involving moving out 31-year-old pending UFA Tyler Toffoli for 25-year-old Yegor Sharangovich and a third round draft pick, or the clear intent to get younger in media availabilities following his hiring, it’s clear that Conroy wants to re-tool with active NHL players.  

“It might not be seamless all the time, and it’s easier to play veteran players, but we need to move forward and learn,” Conroy said. “We have a salary cap, and youth definitely helps with the salary cap.” 

An emergent name in the rumour mill, TSN has confirmed that former Flames teammate of Craig Conroy and current Rangers general manager Chris Drury is taking calls regarding the acquisition of 2019 second overall pick Kappo Kaako. The intention is to replace injured Filip Chytil’s dominant presence on the third line.  

Watching tape of Rangers power forward finally starting to scratch the surface of his potential last season must be enticing for the Flames brain trust.  

A former second overall pick, the potential to be a dominant force in the slot and on the walls, and an asset under RFA control at a reasonable cap hit for a few years. Would that be worth more or less than a combination of late first round draft picks and middling prospects over the next three drafts?

Surely that’s what most teams would be offering for, say, pending UFA pivot Elias Lindholm. 

Editor’s Note: Elias Lindholm is officially off the market. With that said, defencemen Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev are still available.

First, let’s catch up on Kappo Kaako’s 2023-2024 season. 

Something in the way 

Will Cuylle, Jonny Brodzinski, and Kaapo Kaako were the last forward unit to get their first shift last Friday as the Rangers faced off against the Vegas Golden Knights.  

The unit started out with a clunk. Two failed zone entries due to some sluggish transition play. An awkward pass from former Flames defencemen Erik Gustafsson to Cuylle who elected to backhand the puck deep with a slim chance of recovery.  

Brodzinski found a stroke of luck off a Nic Hague error behind the net.  

With a split second to dish the puck, he found Kaako waiting wide open in the right circle. 6-foot-3 Finn received the pass and dished the puck to an open Cuylle on the doorstep.   

With a yawning cage, Cuylle couldn’t quite get the shot on net. The television feed cut to Kaapo, who in his second language, English, muttered a four-word expletive followed by the word “me.”

You could stop right there, and you would have a reasonable enough idea of how things are going for Kakko this year.  

Kaapo ended up scoring a goal that game from the same spot that Cuylle missed. The following night against the Senators, he potted another goal from that same location off a behind-the-net rebound for his fifth goal in 28 games this season.  

On one hand, you could say that the 22-year-old got lucky by having the puck find him in the same spot in two consecutive games. On the other hand, you could say that Kaako’s season has been anything but lucky. 

The author of an 18 goal, 40 point season in 2022-2023, the Turku, Finland product is currently on pace for eight goals and two assists in 47 games.  

It’s easy to say, “He’s getting worse this year. Look at his stats.” A goal and an assist in his first five games had Rangers faithful scratching their heads. Two goals in the next 21 games had them looking for answers. 

But there may be more to it.   

Kaapo Kakko

A lower body injury kept Kakko out of NHL action from Nov. 27 to Jan. 15.  

Playing through that injury possibly before and after he left the lineup, may explain his unprecedented dip in production. The analytics community’s best attempt at defining “puck luck” with the PDO stat indicates that perhaps his 14.4% shooting percentage is, more or less, giving him the production that he deserves. The Rangers have a 1.003 PDO with Kakko on the ice at 5v5. 1.000 generally indicates that you’re getting out of it what you’re putting in. 

So what is the issue this season? 

 

Four reasons that Kaapo Kakko’s season may be a one-off 

 

1.) Kaapo Kakko isn’t known for his speed 

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Finn has never had a reputation for blazing speed. Decent wheels when he’s healthy? Sometimes. His game is more centered around high-IQ plays and overpowering defencemen in the slot.  

Factor in a lower body injury this year, and it’s a rough combination.  

Ask any NHL player how hard it is to find a passing lane when you can’t separate yourself from a checker. Former USHL Scout Vanessa Kezwer does some fantastic player analysis for Sportsnet. Her analysis of Jonathan Huberdeau’s struggles in Calgary is certainly worth a read.

Here is what she had to say on Huberdeau’s footspeed limiting his numbers on the Flames. 

“Since acceleration isn’t a strength of his, these circumstances negate his ability to be a threat on his own, thwarting him from attacking space, driving wide, cutting to the middle, or challenging a defender 1-on-1. 

Simply put, he becomes one-dimensional and is left relying on teammates to enable his next play.” 

You can draw a similar conclusion on Kakko’s game while he deals with a lower body injury.

 

2.) Kakko isn’t usually a play driver 

Comparisons to Huberdeau may raise some red flags for Flames fans, but there is a difference. First of all, power forwards are known for doing the dirty work in the slot and along the boards. Kakko is no exception to that.

Pairing Kaapo with two linemates with a collective 183 NHL games experience and a tendency for dump-and-chase hockey also hasn’t been an ideal combination for the burgeoning forward.

His advanced analytics with play drivers Mikka Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have been much more encouraging.  That line has posted the best even strength expected goals percentage on the Rangers this season among lines playing 100 minutes or more at 56.7%.

56.7xGF% ranks 38th in the NHL among lines following the same criteria. This leads us to the next point.  

 

3.) Kakko doesn’t get favorable power play deployment 

Peter Laviolette hasn’t put Kakko in a situation to accumulate power play production. Kappo has played an average of 1:20 of time with a man advantage per game. Good for sixth among Rangers forwards. His power play time per game has only dropped since his return to the lineup. A drop to 1:12 per night.  

 

4.) On-ice confidence is hard to build at the best of times 

Finding chemistry with linemates can take time. Add to it that he’s doing so while possibly hindered physically and we start to get a better picture of why the former Ligga star is struggling.  

Then there is the change in gears from playing with a possession line of Kreider and Zibanejad to a dump-and-chase line of Cuylle and Brodzinski. It’s understandable why he’s not on his feet in terms of production.  

Ok. We have an idea as to why Kakko is struggling this season. The Rangers front office is surely aware of those factors.

If he doesn’t fit in New York, why would he be a fit in Calgary? 

 

Four reasons Kappo Kakko is Calgary’s Goldilocks trade target

 

1.) Ryan Huska has play-driving options to provide 

A deployment with possession wizard Connor Zary comes to mind immediately, but that may involve breaking up the statistically dominant Zary-Kadri-Pospisil line. The Flames are simply better off with those three kept together. More on that shortly.  

The line that may be ideal is on the left side of Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman; in other words, Calgary’s second dominant play-driving combination.

Kappo has already shown the makings of a responsible two-way forward in the NHL. Add the influence of Backlund and Coleman for a few seasons and you have an asset that may develop into a 200-foot force for the next decade.  

Another option would be forging a new line after Calgary moves an asset out for the 22-year-old. Something along the lines of: 

Mangiapane-Sharangovich-Kakko

Or, if you want Mangiapane with Backlund and Coleman. 

Pelletier-Sharangovich-Kakko

 

2.) The Flames power play needs a net-front finisher 

A quick look at Kakko’s last three goals. 

Net-front Presence

From the slot 

Offensive Coach Marc Savard has a few approaches to power play sequences, but one particular set play would be perfect for the left-shot winger.  

The plan utilizes the right side of the umbrella formation to generate a backdoor rebound that goaltenders and defenders alike have a hard time handling.  

Huska has tried the big-bodied Adam Ruzicka, veteran Mikael Backlund flying in at the right time, and Yegor Sharangovich, who now occupies said right side of the umbrella. None of them were a proper fit.

Kaapo Kakko may be ideal for that spot. 

 

3.) Calgary is a change of scenery 

As we learned from Sam Bennett heading to Florida: sometimes all that is needed is a fresh start and a chance to impress with a new coaching staff. More opportunity, a fresh approach, and the next chapter in life.  

One certainty would be that the Flames would treat Kaapo as a core player and a key to success in the future. That might be all he needs to hear.  

 

4.) The Flames can afford to be patient with Kakko’s injury 

The Calgary Flames have a 22-22-5 record and sit five points out of a Wildcard spot as of January 31, 2024. In other words, making the playoffs is unlikely. What is likely is that Craig Conroy makes a few trades involving his pending UFAs, and the organization keeps developing their players down the stretch.  

That fact works in favor of Kappo Kakko going on IR when he needs to. If he needs to punt this season and hit 2024-2025 at full speed? Reactions will be tempered and reasonable. 

It should come as no surprise that players and coaches both generally encourage the notion of playing through various ailments. It’s common knowledge that power forwards in the NHL have a harder time staying healthy due to the inherent risks of their play style.

Kappo would head to a situation where that isn’t necessary in the short term – which may be perfect for all parties involved.  

 Let’s get to the nitty gritty.

 

The Trade Proposal 

To the Calgary Flames  

RW Kaapo Kakko 

To the New York Rangers 

C Elias Lindholm – 50% retained 

 

Simple as that. A good old fashioned hockey trade. A rare occurrence in this day’s NHL. Doesn’t it make the hairs on your arm stick out? 

Rangers GM Chris Drury solves the Ranger’s need to replace Filip Chytil’s presence in the lineup. Conroy gets a young, high potential project to infuse into his evolving core.  

It would be everything the Flames rookie general manager wants to achieve in a swap. Both sides are happy, and no one gets burned. The two 2002-2003 Flames teammates once again work together towards a common goal.  

The March 8 NHL trade deadline will come and go. Only time will tell what Craig Conroy and the Calgary Flames will acquire via moving out their top-tier list of UFAs. Likely, it will be a list of late first round picks, prospects that teams are willing to part with, and maybe an NHL depth player or two. The question facing the organization as that day approaches looms steady and silent.

Why not swing for the fence with a one-for-one?

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