It’s prospects tournament season across the NHL and this weekend gave us our first real opportunity to make completely irrational and over-the-top projections based on mid-September scrimmage play.
There’s nothing irrational about the lofty expectations building for Kaapo Kakko, though.
This year’s most delicious preseason Kool-Aid was served up by the No. 2 overall pick, and I’ll tell you what: I am devouring every last, refreshing drop as the 18-year-old put on a damn clinic at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan in his (sort of) Rangers debut against the Wild on Monday.
With all eyes on the highly-touted Finish teenager, all he did was deliver three third-period assists (including a slick behind-the-net helper to send the game to overtime) before pulling this preposterous, drool-inducing sequence out of his back pocket during the 3-on-3 OT period to give the Rangers the win.
Kaapo Kakko wins it in OT by himself. pic.twitter.com/1tej5nuenL
— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) September 9, 2019
Wheeling around the rink with the puck on a string and seemingly zero opponents in sight, Kakko took not one but two laps around the net, basically untouched, before tucking home the winner. The barn exploded with awe and applause as Kakko was mauled by his inferior peers in celebration.
“He’s so far above the competition,” one NHL executive said while shaking his head, per The Athletic’s Katie Strang.
And that right there is the takeaway here. This (alleged) 18-year-old, who boasts a 6-foot-2, nearly 200-pound frame, is already a physical force of nature even by today’s fully-grown-man NHL standards, and everyone who’s watched this dude play for even five minutes can see it.
This isn’t just a “let’s overreact to a goal in a rookie tournament” sentiment, either. There’s a little more to it than that. Forced to miss the first two games of the tournament with an illness, Kakko trotted out that performance against players several years older than him, in some cases, and much more experienced. That four-point effort and the sheer dominance he showed throughout the entirety of the contest was not a revelation in any way, but simply more confirmation of Kakko’s sky-high NHL potential.
There’s no rookie vying for an NHL roster spot this season, and that includes No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes (who is absolutely spectacular), that has all of the tools in place — and already as refined and sharp — as Kakko does. He’s one of the more immediately NHL-ready lottery picks we’ve seen come along over the past decade or so.
His reach, the power and precision behind his edging, his puck protection and ability to dominate tight spaces with his positioning — all elite. Kakko’s got pro hands and vision. He’s a top-notch playmaker. His shot is a weapon both power- and accuracy-wise, and he’s sure as hell not afraid to use it.
That shoot-first mentality possessed by all of the world’s truly dominant goal-scorers? Of course that’s already there, too.
“I remember my old coach like two years ago told me, ‘In overtime, don’t pass.’ So I didn’t.”
— Kaapo Kakko, ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/FaCU7WYXI0
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) September 9, 2019
There’s another not-to-be-forgotten factor in all of this, too: the 18-year-old’s experience playing professionally in Finland’s top league. With 22 goals and 38 points in 45 Liiga games last season as a mostly 17-year-old, Kakko produced big time against grown-ass men while his peers, for the most part, were doing the same against college and junior-aged competition.
It’s hard to quantify just how valuable that professional experience is, but it’s undoubtedly a huge advantage to have a year-plus head start on your peers in acclimating to a professional style of play.
The last lottery pick to play in a top-tier European professional entity during their draft year was Auston Matthews, who suited up for Zurich in the Swiss league before he was selected first overall by Maple Leafs in 2016. Just going to leave that there.
This dude is going to light up the Big Apple immediately. Happy Kakko’ing, friends.
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