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Rookie Kaapo Kakko elevated to Rangers' top line with center Mika Zibanejad

Kaapo Kakko of the  Rangers skates in

Kaapo Kakko of the  Rangers skates in the first period against the Coyotes at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Kaapo Kakko told a Finnish outlet recently that he wasn’t having fun, that he occasionally felt he could be on the ice a little more often, and that it would be great to skate sometime on the Rangers’ first line. Now the teen forward’s wish is expected to come to life.

David Quinn has been searching for answers to jolt his team out of a skid that has reached five games. So a few eye-opening moves were revealed during practice Wednesday, changes involving Kakko and Artemi Panarin.

Kakko was elevated from right wing on the second line to the first line, so the rookie's ice time should be elevated Thursday night against Buffalo at the Garden, at least to start.

Quinn also separated Panarin from center Mika Zibanejad on that first line, moving the $81.5 million newcomer to left wing on the second line, alongside Ryan Strome at center and Pavel Buchnevich on right wing. Chris Kreider was installed on the left side of Zibanejad.

“Just a little bit of everything with our situation and we’re still trying to find combinations,” Quinn said of the moves.

Panarin has four goals and two assists in the Rangers' 2-4-1 start, but Kakko only has one goal with one assist and is a minus-6.

After practice, Kakko attributed his lack of fun to a lack of wins. The second overall pick in the 2019 draft said it doesn’t matter what line he’s on.

“We are not playing good right now, our team, and I’m not playing good,” said Kakko, who only played 9:51 in Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime loss at home to Arizona. “… Of course, I expect that I can play better, and hopefully I’m better soon.”  

Quinn thinks the Zibanejad factor will assist Kakko’s cause.

“You see Mika Zibanejad as your center, you’re automatically getting a whole new level of confidence, right?” Quinn said. “It beats playing with me . . .

“(Kakko) does put a lot of pressure on himself. He wants to be great right now. If we all just put ourselves in his shoes, he’s an 18-year-old kid playing for the New York Rangers, put in a role where he’s asked to do an awful lot. Rarely does an 18-year-old come in here and storm the league.”

The problems for this young team have extended well beyond him.

“Right now, the confidence is not as high,” Zibanejad said. “You can probably notice that everyone maybe doesn’t really want the puck at all times.”

The Rangers also need to bring more effort early on after being outscored by a combined count of 4-0 and outshot 41-17 in the first period over the last two games.

“When you’re struggling the way we are, not only losing, but in the fashion that we’re losing, it can really wear on your psyche,” Quinn said. “That being said, you’re pro athletes. It’s your responsibility to play hard every night. That’s something we haven’t been doing.”

New York Sports