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Kaapo Kakko on first line for Rangers' preseason opener

Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko during training camp on

Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko during training camp on Sunday in Greenburgh. Photo Credit: Richard Harbus

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — There will be a little more excitement than usual for a preseason game when the Rangers open their preseason schedule Wednesday at Madison Square Garden against the Devils. Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish superstar the Rangers took with the second overall pick in this year's NHL Draft, will play his first game in a Rangers jersey in the Garden. Not only that, but he’ll be doing it against the team that had a chance to take him No. 1 overall, but opted to take Jack Hughes instead.

Kakko said Tuesday he was “of course’’ excited to make his Rangers debut, and not really nervous. As far as playing the Devils, he said there was no special significance to him.

“Yeah, I know there is Hughes, but it doesn’t matter,’’ he said. “It’s a game against the Devils and that’s it.’’

Kakko isn’t just making his Rangers debut, however. He’s playing on the first line Wednesday, with center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Artemi Panarin. That has Rangers fans excited, but coach David Quinn was quick to insist the line assignment for Kakko isn’t a permanent move.

“That’s just temporary,’’ Quinn said. “That’s just for [Wednesday]. Don’t read into that.’’

The plan remains to play Pavel Buchnevich on the right wing with Panarin and Zibanejad, Quinn said. Buchnevich is not scheduled to play Wednesday night.

Zibanejad speaks some Finnish and can communicate with the 18-year-old Kakko in his native language. He called Kakko, who played in Finland’s top pro league last season and won gold medals with Finland in both the World Junior Championships and World Championships, “a great player; young, but strong.’’

“He’s doing the little things really good,’’ Zibanejad said. “Super skilled, can pass, can shoot. His hockey IQ is at a very high level and he’s an exciting player.’’

Zibanejad said he is excited to play with Panarin, the top prize of the free agent market this summer who chose the Rangers and signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract. 

“It’s going to be fun,’’ Zibanejad said of playing with Panarin, who had 28 goals and 59 assists in 79 games last season for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “You’ve been waiting for it since July 1st. It’s been something that you’ve been excited about and you know, the opportunity and possibility of playing with him was big, and now we get to do it, so I’m super amped just to start off playing games, obviously, but to get going with him, and to see how Kakko looks next to us, it’s going to be a lot of fun.’’

Panarin, asked if he was excited to get the preseason going, said, “Of course. Are you?’’

Also making their Rangers debuts Wednesday will be defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, the 21-year-old Jericho native, and young Russians Vitali Kravtsov and Igor Shesterkin. Kravtsov, 19, was the first of three first-round picks for the Rangers in 2018. He is slated to play on the right wing of the second line, with Chris Kreider and Lias Andersson. Shesterkin, 23, a goaltender who has been considered the heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist, will split time in the goal with Alexandar Georgiev, Quinn said.

Trouba, the former Winnipeg Jets defenseman who was acquired via trade in June and then signed a seven-year, $56 million contract as a restricted free agent in July, is slated to play on the first pair defense, alongside Brady Skjei. The two are close friends who played together on the US National Team Development Program, and Trouba got an apartment in the city near where Skjei lives. They spend a lot of time together away from the rink.

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