Kaapo Kakko shook his head in affirmation.
“So good,” the Rangers 18-year-old winger said about the recent trip back to his native Finland while his NHL team was on a nine-day break for All-Star weekend and their bye week, which ended with Friday night’s Garden match against the Red Wings.
“It was so good for me to spend time with friends and family,” the No. 2-overall pick said Friday morning. “It was so good for me.”
There have obviously been high expectations for Kakko, but, as could have been expected for such a young player in his first time on the smaller North American rinks, there have been ups and downs. One of the big ups was getting the most ice time of his short NHL career during the game just before the break, elevated to the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad while logging 19:33.
Coach David Quinn did not keep him there coming back, set to start Kakko on the third line with Brendan Lemieux and Filip Chytil against the league-worst Red Wings. But Kakko was going to have a great opportunity to move back up if he keeps playing the way he was just before the break.
“One of the things that I think people can lose sight of is when you put an 18-year-old on your top line, they’re going to face the other team’s top line and the other team’s top ‘D’ pairing, and that can be a tall task,” said Quinn, who started the game with that top flank occupied by Pavel Buchnevich, who had been sick for a while before the break.
“I think [Buchnevich] is a good fit for that line right now,” Quinn added. “But that being said, I would not be hesitant at all to put Kakko up there.”
Like most teenagers — with his 19th birthday coming Feb. 13 — Kakko has focused on his point production, which is far from what he was used to playing in the top Finnish league. He had seven goals and 16 points in his first 44 NHL games. That included one goal in his previous 28 games, and no points in his previous eight, going into Friday night. Quinn and his staff have tried to reassure him that he shouldn’t evaluate his game solely on points production, and that is a lesson that seems to at least be partially settling in.
“I think the last [few] games, I played better,” Kakko said. “I have no goals, no points. But it’s coming. Last game, I played almost 20 minutes. So that’s good for me.”
Though the most games he ever played in a Finnish season was 45, Kakko was dismissive in saying, “Tired? No, I’m not.” And Quinn had a reason for that.
“If you talk to him, he hasn’t played as many minutes, so that’s why,” Quinn said. “I don’t see the fatigue in him. He had a little bit of [a dip in play] in November, along with some of our other younger guys. But I have not seen [fatigue].”
Quinn’s team will play the next few weeks in the shadow of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, which could drastically change the makeup of the roster. Among the forwards, Kreider is arguably the best rental on the market, and Buchnevich could be on the move, along with pending free agents Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. That is a lot of minutes to be had if any number of them leave.
With the short trip back home for a couple days, the hope is that Kakko is refreshed and ready to take on a bigger role in the second half.
“An 18-year-old from Europe, there are a lot of challenges because the game is just so different,” Quinn said. “Kakko is making a lot of adjustments in his life, and that’s an awful lot to throw at an 18-year-old — and I think he’s done a good job handling it.”
As for contemplating the increased minutes and role, Kakko cracked another fresh-faced smile.
“I like playing hockey,” he said. “So it’s good for me.”
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