GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Kaapo Kakko has played well at Rangers Training Camp 2.0 this summer. Although he impressed this past weekend when he filled in for Pavel Buchnevich on the first line, coach David Quinn immediately put the 19-year-old Kakko back on the third line Tuesday when Buchnevich returned to practice.
Buchnevich had played too well before the NHL paused on March 12 to lose his spot because he missed one scrimmage, Quinn said. But the coach also explained why having Kakko on the third line makes sense.
“I think gives our lineup more depth,’’ the second-year coach said Tuesday. “And it's a little bit more threatening if we continue to see what we see out of Kaapo.’’
Threatening is exactly what Filip Chytil, Kakko’s centerman on that third line, is hoping to be when the Rangers face off Aug. 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes in their best-of-5 play-in series in Toronto, with the winner advancing to the 16-team playoffs.
“We have a great top six [forwards] and we’re going to play, probably against [Carolina’s] third line,’’ Chytil said after practice Wednesday of his line, with Kakko and left wing Phil DiGiuseppe. “So, we have to dominate them; we have to play better than them.
“We’ve got to be better than their third line,’’ he said. “We can make the difference between both teams.’’
The top two lines, headlined by Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and 40-goal scorer Mika Zibanejad, will naturally draw most of the Hurricanes’ attention. But Chytil’s point that his line could play a key role in the series is true, especially if Kakko can carry what he’s done in camp so far into the bubble in Toronto, and if Chytil can recapture the start he had when he joined the Rangers from AHL Hartford at the end of October.
Chytil, the second of two first-round picks by the Rangers in 2017 (Lias Andersson was the other), failed to make the team out of training camp last fall. But he played well at Hartford and was called up after Zibanejad got hurt Oct. 27 against Boston. He scored a goal in each of his first two games, had six goals in his first eight games, and had seven, plus two assists, in the 13-game span that Zibanejad was out of the lineup.
The Rangers went 8-4-1 in Zibanejad’s absence, and according to Quinn, that run gave the team belief in itself. Chytil, filling in as the No. 2 center during the stretch, played an important part in that, Quinn said.
“When Mika got hurt, [Chytil] stepped in and really, from the get-go, was dynamic,’’ Quinn said. “I think guys kind of realized what we were capable of doing once [Zibanejad] did come back and we get some continuity and some rhythm. And I think that's kind of what happened. And I think Fil allowed that to happen.’’
Chytil, who dropped to the No. 3 center role when Zibanejad returned, ended up with a career-high 14 goals and nine assists in 60 games. During the long NHL pause, he went home to the Czech Republic where he was able to skate, and work out and prepare for the league’s restart.
“When I got home, I started working out in quarantine,’’ he said. “I'm not a guy who would like to lay down and just watch TV.’’
He changed his diet; put in work with his personal trainer; started skating five weeks before training camp began, and returned to New York feeling confident, he said.
“I feel great in this camp,’’ he said. “I have more energy than before and everything's helped me to be better player.’’