Kaapo Kakko puffed up in hopes of breakthrough in year 3

TARRYTOWN – Kaapo Kakko hasn’t spent much of his summer in Finland practicing shooting, puck handling or other hockey skills.

The 20-year-old forward had a different primary goal: to prepare his body for the rigors of a season in the NHL, which he considers the biggest adjustment since being drafted second in 2019.

“I didn’t think much about the game,” Kakko said after Monday’s practice at the MSG training center. “I just spent some time in the gym and a little bit on the ice, skating and things like that.”

“The guys here, they’re bigger and stronger, so I think I have to be at the same level as these guys,” he explained. “That is why.”

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He added six pounds of muscle, dropping from 199 last season to 205 heading into the 2021-22 campaign.

The Finnish winger looks more robust and complete, which he hopes will translate when he makes his preseason debut Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins.

“It’s a big season for me,” he said. “The first season wasn’t that good. I think last season was so different, but I still think I played better. Not that many points, but I think right now I am playing better. have a good chance. I play with good players now and I feel good. “

Kakko received top-six opportunities in his first two seasons, but they were fleeting. He spent a lot more time on the third row, often playing with inexperienced players such as Filip Chytil, Brett Howden and Alexis Lafrenière.

But new head coach Gérard Gallant seems determined to put him in a better position to succeed. He spent the first five days of training camp on the second line with Ryan Strome and leading scorer Artemi Panarin, two veterans with a great track record together.

Kakko has played with them in the past, but never stayed because former coach David Quinn preferred to use grinders – players like Jesper Fast and Colin Blackwell, who would gladly do the dirty work to open up scoring chances for them. Panarin and Strome.

Gallant wants Kakko to do some of these things, but believes he can strike a balance that doesn’t take away from his attacking potential.

“You want complete hockey players, and I think he’s quite capable of being a complete hockey player,” he said. “You want to do a little bit of everything – work in the corners, go to the net. But he’s also got a lot of talent and skill for a young player.”

Kakko showed drastic defensive improvement last season, going from an average of 3.17 expected goals per 60 minutes as a rookie to a team record of 1.98 xGA / 60 in 2020-2021, according to Evolving Hockey. .

It was encouraging, but the Rangers are still waiting for the attack to break out. He produced just 40 points (19 goals and 21 assists) in 114 NHL games. Quinn and now Gallant insist that going inside and crushing the net will lead to more goals.

“When goalscorers score, that’s where they score a lot of goals,” said Gallant.

Bulking up should help him physically hold up in these situations – and if he’s in the right position, the creative Panarin, who has racked up 104 assists in the past two seasons, will find him.

Gallant seemed confident that everything would snap into place soon.

“He will continue to improve,” he said. “The kid is going to be an exceptional hockey player.

Fourth line new look

While the Panarin-Strome-Kakko line will gain the most attention on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, another new-look line is also set to debut.

This should be the first glimpse of Rangers’ hard-line fourth line of Sammy Blais, Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves.

“We’re three big guys and I know we’ll have to put pucks in deep and go to work and exhaust (defense),” Blais said. “I know if you can do that day in and day out, you’re going to give yourself a good chance of winning. To win in the end, you don’t just want to have skills. You have to work hard and do all those little things. “

Blais was acquired by the Rangers, with a 2022 second-round pick, in July exchange that sent Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues.

The 25-year-old winger has never played more than 40 games in a season or produced more than 15 points, in part due to injury issues over the past two years. But he was a regular on the Blues roster during their 2019 Stanley Cup run, with the Rangers believing his beefed up playstyle will suit what they’re trying to do with their last six forwards.

“Every good team in the league has their role players that go out there and change momentum,” said Gallant. ” This is what you want. And it’s not about fighting – it’s about getting pucks deep, throwing a big shot into the offensive zone, getting their defenders playing the puck much faster and returning the pucks. This is an important element for a lot of coaches. You want that on your team. “

Saint-Louis Blues left winger Sammy Blais

If Blais falters, look for Dryden Hunt to find his place on the left wing.

Gallant said the 25-year-old Canadian was “the guy who stood out the most” in Sunday’s 4-0 preseason loss to the Islanders due to his hard play and pace of work in the game. below the circles.

“(My) early years as a pro I just realized how many good players there are in this league,” said Hunt. “Everyone in the league is qualified. Everyone in this league, at some point, has scored (at lower levels). So it’s about adjusting and bringing something else to the table. . I think that’s definitely what I’ve been trying to work on for the past couple of years. “

Lack of puck support

After analyzing the video of Sunday’s lopsided loss, Gallant walked away with an overarching theme he wanted to highlight to his team in Monday practice.

The lack of sharpness with breakouts and zone entries, which led to eight giveaways, is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“Today we talked about the puck support all over the ice,” he said. “We didn’t have enough last night (Sunday). And most importantly, a lot of times our D turned to put the puck on the ice and we swung. We cannot swing. to get support. We need to move the puck from our D to our forwards. It’s a big part of the game in the league today – and it’s in all three zones. It’s not just in the attacking zone or Zone D, it’s the neutral zone too. I just didn’t think we had enough support for the puck.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Cal Clutterbuck # 15 of the New York Islanders rides New York Rangers' Mika Zibanejad # 93 in the boards during the first period of a preseason game at Madison Square Garden on September 26, 2021 in New York City.

Henrik Lundqvist’s issue 30 will retire on January 28

Henrik Lundqvist’s number 30 will be officially retired by Rangers on January 28, the team announced on Monday.

The franchise’s most victorious goaltender will be recognized at MSG in a pre-game ceremony starting at 6:30 p.m., followed by a game against the Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m.

“In the history of the franchise, only 11 Rangers players have earned the honor of having their numbers carried to the rafters of the Garden, where they forever serve as inspiration for others to follow,” wrote the Owner and Executive Chairman James L. Dolan in a statement. “For 15 seasons, Henrik Lundqvist embodied everything that the Rangers organization stands for: excellence, commitment, pride and leadership. It is only fitting that his No.30 now joins the legends that l ‘have preceded.

Lundqvist’s final year of contract was bought out by Rangers ahead of the 2020-21 season. He then signed with the Washington Capitals, but was unable to play due to open heart surgery for an aortic valve replacement.

He made his retirement official in August, having retired after playing 887 games and amassing a 459-310-96 record, as well as a 2.43 GAA, .918% SV and 64 shutouts. He also holds the franchise records for playoff wins (61), playoff shutouts (10) and playoff save percentage (0.921).

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

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