Kaapo Kakko’s promotion could have major impact on Rangers’ trade deadline

Kaapo Kakko’s promotion could have major impact on Rangers’ trade deadline

If Kaapo Kakko can stick the landing this time, that would have a major impact on the Rangers’ approach to the March 8 trade deadline.

For if the Finn succeeds after being restored to right wing on the line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, GM Chris Drury will no longer have the obligation to sacrifice assets in order to get a Frank Vatrano or Vladimir Tarasenko to play with the BFFs, and instead can focus on strengthening the defense and the bottom-six up front.

Kakko has played his strongest hockey of the year over the past dozen games on the third line with Jonny Brodzinski in the middle and Will Cuylle on the left.

He has taken the puck to the net while working the walls and cycling below the hash marks.

Kaapo Kakko looks to keep the puck away from Luke Hughes during the Rangers' win over the Devils last week.Kaapo Kakko looks to keep the puck away from Luke Hughes during the Rangers’ win over the Devils last week. Getty Images

He has been a threat to score, recording four goals and three assists over the past 12 games.

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When Blake Wheeler went down for the count against Montreal on Feb. 15, head coach Peter Laviolette moved Jimmy Vesey up from the fourth line to take the right wing spot with Kreider and Zibanejad.

But not only has the unit failed to generate traction, Laviolette has generally dropped Vesey back to the checking line by late in the second period while giving extra shifts up top to Artemi Panarin, Alexis Lafreniere and even Vincent Trocheck.

This move that will go into effect Wednesday when the Jackets come to the Garden will both stabilize the lineup and give the hierarchy the opportunity over three games between now and the deadline to gauge whether that top-six assignment on the right can be filled from within.

Kakko played the first 11 games of the year with Kreider and Zibanejad before another six more in mid-January. The unit has had trouble scoring — on the ice for five goals in 181:16 — even while generating dominant peripheral numbers that produced an expected goals share of 56.89 percent, Laviolette flipped him twice with Wheeler, but Kakko is now playing his most formidable hockey of the season. If there is a time for it, this is it.

“Our line with [Cuylle and Brodzinski] was playing well and scoring goals, but I think it’s good for me to play with those guys,” Kakko said in reference to Kreider and Zibanejad. “It means more ice time. I think I’ve been playing well and feeling good on the ice and that’s a good thing.”

Kakko averaged 12:46 per game while recording four goals and three assists the last 12 games. His ice time will increase, but so will the level of competition and so will the pressure. When the third line scores, it is a bonus. When the first- or second-line scores, it is expected if not obligatory.

“I’m trying not to [think about] the pressure and I just try to play the same every game, it doesn’t matter about how much ice time, blah, blah, blah,” Kakko said. “I also understand that the first line means more ice time and we need to be that top line and score some goals.

Kaapo Kakko skates the puck around the nets for the Rangers.Kaapo Kakko skates the puck around the nets for the Rangers. NHLI via Getty Images

“We will be out there a lot so a lot depends on us. So maybe there is a little more pressure but this is a new opportunity for me, more ice time. I just like to play. That’s how I think.”

The Blueshirts, who completed a stretch of five games in eight days with the defeat in Columbus, are now in a span in which they play four games in 12 days, leaving ample time for practice, rest and recovery leading into the home stretch.

Following this one, the Rangers are in Toronto on Saturday before hosting the Panthers on Monday. They next play the day after the deadline, March 9, at the Garden against the Blues.

The power play has gone 1-for-16 in four games since striking for three goals in the 6-5, OT outdoor game victory over the Islanders of which a pair came on six-on-four advantages after pulling goaltender Igor Shesterkin for an extra attacker.