Jesper Fast left a gaping hole on the right wing of the Rangers’ second line when he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent in October.
Not only was he the team’s five-time Players’ Player award winner, given annually to the Ranger “who best exemplifies what it means to be a team player,” but Fast morphed into a relatively consistent 20-30 point contributor over his seven seasons on Broadway.
Without Fast, head coach David Quinn appears to be turning to Kaapo Kakko to fill that void and round out the second line alongside Hart trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.
It’s a lot to ask of Kakko, who is coming off a rookie season filled with growing pains, but it may just be what the 19-year-old Finnish winger needs to jumpstart his NHL career.
“He obviously feels good,” Panarin said of Kakko last week. “It’s difficult to judge in these two practices with the very scrambly scrimmages. But obviously we will see a full picture soon.”
Quinn said he’s liked the “progression” he’s seen from that trio throughout training camp, adding that he hopes to see them take strides in creating more offense. But as much as Kakko will have to improve his overall game from last season, Quinn wants Panarin and Strome to take on more responsibility as well.
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“[Kakko] has just got to learn to play off those two guys,” the third-year Rangers coach said. “If he does that, continues to go in that direction, that line can be a very effective line for us. He understands the role he’s going to have to play on that line with those two players.
“That being said, we have also talked with both (Panarin) and Strome about the chemistry on that line and what it’s going to take to have success. It’s not just one guy. It’s all three of those guys understanding what their roles are on that line and what they’re going to have to do to have success.”
In 66 games last season, Kakko scored 10 goals – including three game-winners – and dished 13 assists. While he has proven his willingness to do the dirty work around the crease and behind the net, Kakko will need to improve the defensive side of his game to fully step into that second-line role Fast once occupied.
Thinking back to when Fast was sidelined with a concussion after taking a hard hit from Brady Skjei in his first shift of Game 1 against Carolina this past postseason, Quinn recalled a discussion he had with Panarin and Strome.
“I brought them in and said, ‘OK, if you could pick one forward that could play with you, who would it be?’” Quinn recalled. “They both kind of looked at each other and started rattling off characteristics of a player that they were looking for. I said, ‘Well, that’s all good and dandy, but we need you two to do more of that as well. It can’t just be one guy.’ And I think that’s what’s going to have to happen this season.
“Regardless of who’s playing with them – and right now it’s Kakko and he and I have talked about what he needs to do – but we need it from everybody. We need more of an in-your-face, staying on top of people, defensive conscientious approach to have success. It can’t just be one guy on a line, and I don’t think those guys will have to sacrifice offense to do that. … I’m certainly anticipating that’s how they’re going to approach it.”