VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Rangers’ much-talked-about rebuild reached a turning point on April 9, the night when the Ping-Pong balls bounced their way and they moved up from sixth to second in the NHL Draft Lottery. With two transformative players available, the Rangers were assured that one would be there when it was their turn to select.
So when the Devils took American Jack Hughes with the first pick Friday at Rogers Arena, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton wasted no time announcing that the Blueshirts were taking Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko, 18, who starred in his country’s top professional league. He led Finland to the gold medal in the World Junior Championships in this city in January and the World Championships in Slovakia last month.
“I think we got a chance at a special player,’’ Gorton said when asked what the Rangers have in Kakko, who scored 22 goals in 45 games this season for TPS, a Finnish league record for draft-eligible players. “We all saw what he did over the course of the season; we saw that he’s won a few championships and excelled at every one of them. It’s an exciting day for us, and you win the lottery, although it seems like months ago, and here we are to finally call the name, so it’s an exciting day.’’
Team president John Davidson hardly could contain his excitement at landing Kakko. He tried to temper expectations that the 6-2, 194-pounder will step right into the lineup but then gave up trying.
“He’s young. Let’s not jump ahead of ourselves too far,’’ Davidson said. “Let’s let things fall into place.
“But I’m trying to talk myself into that also,’’ he said with a laugh. “I’m just telling you the truth.’’
Kakko said he had hoped to go No. 1 but got over the disappointment quickly.
“Yeah, of course, it was my dream to be No. 1, but the second one is also good,’’ he said. “And I don’t know, every team in the NHL is a good team, so I’m happy.’’
When asked if he hopes to prove that the Devils made the wrong choice, he smiled and said, “Yeah.’’
Kakko was the top-rated European skater in the NHL’s Central Scouting list of prospects and was tabbed as the second-best player available, behind Hughes, who had 112 points in 50 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program. But Kakko made people take notice when he scored the winning goal for Finland in the gold-medal game at the World Juniors — against a U.S. team led by Hughes — and when he led a Finland team that had no NHL players to the World title, totaling a team-high six goals.
A native of Turku, Finland, Kakko lives with Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, which requires him to follow a strict gluten-free diet.
On the ice, Kakko demonstrated elite stickhandling and finishing ability, but he will have to adjust to the smaller NHL rinks after growing up playing on the bigger sheets in Europe.
He should step right into the Rangers’ lineup and improve an offense that had 221 goals last season, tied for 24th in the league. He could slot in as the first-line right wing, playing with Mika Zibanejad and — if he isn’t traded — Chris Kreider.
“I hope I can play in the NHL next year,’’ Kakko said, adding that he needs to get stronger and to improve his skating to make that happen.