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Kaapo Kakko's strong play earns rookie a promotion, at least temporarily

Kaapo Kakko at Rangers training camp on July

Kaapo Kakko at Rangers training camp on July 13, 2020. Credit: Nick Homler/NY Rangers/Nick Homler

Options. Every coach needs them, and halfway through Training Camp 2.0, Rangers coach David Quinn is starting to discover that he has more than a few.

Pavel Buchnevich leaving practice early Saturday gave Quinn the opportunity to look at Kaapo Kakko on the first line, with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. And Kakko looked like a perfect fit there, scoring two goals in Sunday’s scrimmage.

“I thought Kakko had a really good day,’’ Quinn said on Sunday. “He's had a really good stretch here, since we got back.’’

While he isn’t allowed to give updates to the media on injuries, Quinn did say that whatever caused Buchnevich to leave practice Saturday and miss Sunday won’t prevent him from playing in the Rangers’ best-of-five play-in series against the Carolina Hurricanes. So if Buchnevich returns quickly, he’ll most likely go back to his regular spot with Kreider and Zibanejad.

But Kakko playing well Sunday not only gives the Rangers depth in their forward group, but it provides Quinn and his coaching staff with options. Quinn has always been one to reward good play with ice time, and just because Kakko might not be on the first line doesn’t mean he has to go back to the third line. Quinn, who spent Monday meeting with the coaching staff while the players enjoyed a day off, could tweak his lines a bit and maybe bump Kakko up to the second line, with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. That would drop defensive-minded Jesper Fast to the third line, which might be a more natural fit.

Julien Gauthier is another option. Gauthier, who had been the fourth-line right wing, moved into Kakko’s spot on the third line Sunday, and he also had two goals. Gauthier is a 6-4, 227-pound former first-round pick (2016) acquired from the Hurricanes in a minor-league deal for defenseman Joey Keane on Feb. 18 and hasn’t had much ice time with the Rangers. But his size and speed are intriguing.

“He certainly is a noticeable player,’’ Quinn said Sunday of Gauthier, 22. “The thing I like about him is he wants to learn; he wants to get better. He's a coachable guy.’’

As for Kakko, expectations were high — and maybe a tad unrealistic — after he was chosen second overall in the NHL Draft last summer. The 6-3, 199-pounder led Finland to the gold medal in the World Junior Championships in 2019, scored 22 goals in 45 games (plus another four goals in five playoff games) as a 17-year-old in Finland’s professional league, and helped Finland win the World Championship tournament.

Some expected a Calder Trophy-winning rookie season from him, but he had 10 goals and 23 points in 66 games before the NHL season paused because of the coronavirus on March 12. The pause, though, seemed to refresh Kakko, who turned 19 in February. While North America and much of the world was on lockdown in April and May, he was able to work out and skate back home in Turku, Finland. And the benefits have been obvious in camp.

“I feel like he feels much more comfortable coming back,’’ said Fast, whose line matched up against Kakko’s in the scrimmage. “You see he's smiling, he's happy — I mean, like it's a new energy for him. The way he's been looking so far this camp . . . he's looking real sharp. He looks strong on the puck, and [he] had a good scrimmage [Sunday], so after that giving him more confidence going forward.’’

It’s good to have options.

Lemieux suspended for two games

   Brendan Lemieux has been suspended by the NHL for the first two games of the Rangers' against series against the Hurricanes because of an illegal check that injured Colorado forward Joonas Donskoi in March.

   The league’s department of player safety announced the suspension Monday, four months after holding a hearing with Lemieux.

   The suspension means Lemieux will miss the first two games of the best-of-five series against Carolina, which opens in Toronto on Aug. 1.

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