Kaapo Kakko’s Rangers future in doubt after puzzling scratch

First, a history refresher:

A year ago, the Canadiens scratched pending restricted free agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Finn whom they had selected third overall in 2018, for Games 4 and 5 — the final two games — of the Cup final against Tampa Bay.

Kotkaniemi, who had recorded 62 points (22-40) in 171 career games, never played another game for Montreal. Instead, the center rather famously signed a one-year offer sheet from Carolina worth $6,100,035. The Habs failed to match, instead of opting to take compensation of a first- and third-round draft pick.

There was, of course, a certain amount of payback involved in the ‘Canes’ ownership decision to target Kotkaniemi a year after Montreal had extended an offer sheet to Carolina star center Sebastien Aho that was quickly matched.

So that was part of it. But an equally large part of it is that Kotkaniemi was susceptible to an offer sheet and more than willing to be seduced.

Now, to current events:

Saturday night, the Rangers scratched pending restricted free agent Kaapo Kakko, the Finn whom they selected second overall in 2019, for Game 6 — the final game — of the conference final against Tampa Bay.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but if Kakko indicates a willingness to receive suits once the market opens on July 13, one would have to believe Saturday night would certainly be a significant factor in his decision.

Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko was scratched for Saturday's season-ending loss to the Lightning.
Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko was scratched for Saturday’s season-ending loss to the Lightning.
Corey Sipkin

Unless there is a larger issue of which no one is aware, head coach Gerard Gallant’s decision to sit Kakko in favor of Dryden Hunt — who had not played since Game 3 of the first round — and thus eviscerate the Kid Line is no less puzzling the day(s) after than it was the night of the match.

Gallant never truly bought into the concept of the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kakko unit, never really trusted the lads despite their incontrovertible contributions. The coach sheltered their time even though their line was the one who made it their consistent mission to get the puck in deep and go to work on the forecheck and cycle game.

The eye test and publicly available analytics align here. The Kids were intact for 140:19 through the tournament, posting positive numbers in every category, on for 10 goals for and five against for a plus-five. They were even better in the final two rounds, per Natural Stat Trick, recording a 56.83 Corsi rating, a 64.62 shot share, a 61.83 xGF rate, a 58.02 share of scoring chances while on for seven goals for and none — none — against.

Still, Dryden Hunt.

The cascading effects of the decisions to sit Kakko, play Hunt and dress an obviously laboring Ryan Strome all contributed to the Blueshirts’ inability to muster any sort of credible attack in the 2-1 defeat whose final score represented the optical illusion fashioned by Igor Shesterkin . True, Kakko had scored just one goal since Game 3 of the first round, but he had the ability to work the puck down low and on the walls while his line created at least some offensive zone possession time.

The contract negotiations with Kakko were always going to be interesting, because the Finn was always going to have leverage, even if coming off a year ruined by a wrist injury that sidelined the 21-year-old for 31 games during the guts of the season in which he recorded 18 points (7-11) in 43 games.

Rangers wing Kaapo Kakko (24) during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning.
Rangers wing Kaapo Kakko (24) during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning.
USA TODAY Sports

And the leverage is based upon the simple mathematical truth that the Rangers would be helpless if Kakko receives an offer sheet in the range of $4.2 million to $6.3 million that would bring with it nothing more than the Kotkaniemi compensation of a first- and third-rounder .

With second contracts due to both Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller in another year that would likely amount to upwards of a combined $10 million, the Blueshirts’ hierarchy would not be able to match any offer sheet that is worth signing.

The ramifications of Saturday’s scratching are unknown, but if Kakko gets to July 13 without an extension that would likely be a two-year bridge deal for between $2 million and $2.5 million per, then we’ll have a pretty decent idea of ​​what the winger made of all this.

If it gets to July 13, you can probably replace the No. 24 on Kakko’s back with a “For Sale” sign. By the way, once it becomes inevitable that Kakko is going to July 13, it will be incumbent for GM Chris Drury to trade Kakko for a more immediate return as opposed to getting that compensation.

They cannot be Kotkaniemi’d.

Kakko’s development has been much slower and his ceiling much lower than anticipated when the Blueshirts danced a jig upon selecting him second overall after moving up via the lottery. But there has been progress. But now this?

The Rangers didn’t think he could help in an elimination game against Tampa Bay? Is this their idea of ​​Kakko’s future value? If so, why would No. 24 want to stay?

Maybe there is more to the story. Maybe either Gallant or Drury will actually address the issue in their postseason press briefings.

That would be helpful.

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