Gerard Gallant has deployed seven different first-line combinations this season, but the Rangers head coach is back to his starting point.
It was only a matter of time before Kaapo Kakko was reinstated to the right-wing spot next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. The fact is, the 21-year-old Finn has been the most effective of anyone who has stepped into that role. The other fact, however, is that the aforementioned trio hasn’t been consistent enough to compel Gallant to build the rest of the lineup around it. Both can be true at the same time, but either way, the Rangers have doubled back when it comes to their top unit.
Since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis last year after a career season, the Rangers haven’t had a no-brainer winger to plug in next to Zibanejad and Kreider on a consistent basis. But Kakko could — and should — be the next face carved into the Rangers’ equivalent of Mount Rushmore for players who have not only excelled, but made the club’s two longest-tenured players better.
“We’ve been lucky to play with some really skilled players,” Kreider told The Post Monday after practice at MSG Training Center. “Some really responsible players, guys who are committed to playing a north game, which I think certainly complements how we want to play — and vice versa. [Mats Zuccarello] was really good at holding onto pucks, drawing people in and opening up Mika. Winning puck battles, good on the walls. And the same can be said for Buch and Jesper [Fast] and Kaapo.”
The only descriptor Gallant has used when analyzing Kakko’s play as of late is “outstanding.” Kakko served up the primary assists on one of Zibanejad’s two goals and Kreider’s tally in the 5-3 win over the Panthers that kicked off 2023 on Sunday. To put this season in perspective, Kakko is only six points shy of tying his career-high of 23 points, which he sset as a rookie during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
Kakko, who is one goal away from matching the 10 he posted in his first season, has maintained that he’s played some of his best hockey as an NHLer while on a line with Kreider and Zibanejad. After playing with those two for the first 13 games of the season, Kakko will skate there for a third straight game Tuesday night against the Hurricanes at the Garden.
“Regardless of how many changes you’ve had since the beginning of the year, you’re always trying to build chemistry and get a feel for your linemates, who sometimes it takes years,” Kreider said. “Some lines who stay together for a long time and it becomes kind of second nature. Keep building. For us, it’s just the comfortability with [Kakko] because you know he’s going to make the right play, you know he’s going to support the puck, hold on to the puck.
“He’s obviously a very good goal-scorer, but his ability to see the ice is pretty special, too. Some of the plays he’s been making, going back to the playoffs.”
Of all the top-line combinations the Rangers have had this season, Kakko’s union with Kreider and Zibanejad has recorded the most encouraging numbers. In 159:09 of ice time, according to Natural Stat Trick, those three have outscored opponents 7-4 and have held a 114-83 edge in scoring chances.
The only other trio with that kind of sample size has been Kreider, Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey, who have started on a line together for a combined 12 games and 114:42, over which they have been on the ice for seven Rangers goals and four against. They have, however, been out-chanced 114-83.
If Kakko wants to join the likes of Zuccarello, Fast, and Buchnevich as a winger who made the Kreider-Zibanejad duo that much better, he is going to have to find that finishing touch. Every post he’s hit and every ridiculous stretch of possession that’s ended with the puck just barely missing the net indicates Kakko is close.
“Just didn’t score,” Kakko told The Post of his first go-around with Zibanejad and Kreider this season. ”I think it’s time to score some goals.”
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