Is it Time to Start Worrying about Lafrenière and Kakko?

Via the New York Post

Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière have had some rough starts to the season. The former first overall pick in 2020 and second overall pick in 2019 respectively have not been scoring at their expected paces, when other players from both draft classes are outscoring them. The question has to be asked: are these two young players going to be busts? Or can they turn their career’s around, and start to live up to their expectations?

Kaapo Kakko

Kaapo Kakko had one of the worst starts to a career, period. Being one of the worst players in the NHL in 2019-20, it was clear Kakko was simply not ready to play in the NHL, and given he was playing in New York City, he was under the spotlight from day one.

Is Kakko a bust? Will he BE a bust?

The accusations of “bust” have been there since day one for Kakko. With the emergence of rival New Jersey Devils 2019 first overall draft pick, Jack Hughes, and the breakouts of others such as Trevor Zegras with the Anaheim Ducks, Cole Caufield with the Montreal Canadiens, and Matthew Boldy of the Minnesota Wild, all selected after Kakko at second, it’s hard to overlook his lack of production. Especially as his career progresses, and the chances of him suddenly gaining the scoring touch that got him drafted so high lowers, Kaapo Kakko is at a crossroads in his career. He could be a low event, low scoring winger with defensive prowess, not exactly worthy of a second overall pick but still a good player, or he can be the scoring winger he was prior to the draft, who has the puck taped to his stick and is defensively sound.

To this, we will look at his trajectory and what seems to be probable. If Kaapo Kakko is to become a scorer and a force on the puck, we need to look at a number of things. First, we should look at Kakko’s shot selection. This season, so far Kakko has 45 shots and is shooting at a percentage of 8.89%. This shooting percentage is not outside of the norm for Kakko, but it is his shot selection which has changed.Compared to his rates from his first two seasons in the NHL, which are around 6 shots per 60 minutes, (per 60 means the total, divided by the player’s ice time, multiplied by 60), he is now shooting around seven shots per 60. A small increase, but an increase nonetheless. What has changed is that even though he is taking a similar amount of shots, he is creating considerably more high danger scoring chances.

These are scoring chances from the slot, and are called “high danger” because of the increased likelihood of scoring. This season, Kakko is averaging about 5 high danger scoring chances per 60, an increase from 3.43 the year before, 3.14 the year before that, and just 2.67 his rookie season. The proof is in the pudding, Kakko IS getting scoring chances, and more of them. He is using his size to create more scoring opportunities for him and his team, and is playing some of his best hockey.

Lastly, all we need to do is look at his expected goals. He currently has about six expected goals in 22 games played, and four actual goals. He usually has about as many expected goals as he does goals, but this season he simply has more of each. Considering that the Rangers are one of the unluckiest teams at 5v5, with 16 less goals than expected goals, Kakko’s point totals should surge once the team starts scoring at their regular pace again. Whether that means putting Kakko in the top 6, or simply playing out their scoring struggles, the goals are bound to come.

Alexis Lafrenière

For Alexis Lafrenière, also known as Laf, his progression along the seasons is a little bit different. While Kakko struggled heavily right out of the gate, Laf hasn’t had as worse of a struggle in the NHL. Despite this, he is still struggling to put up points at the level he was expected to, leading fans to label him a bust early in his career.

Is Laf a bust? Will he BE a bust?

The expectations placed upon Lafrenière are arguably even higher than the expectations of Kakko, but he did not face nearly as much struggle to acclimate to the NHL. He famously did not register a goal through his first nine games in the NHL in his debut season, as well as also coming into the league during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the NHL played without fans. Where Kakko might be more reserved, Lafrenière is more outgoing, as seen in the 2022 playoffs as he rode the wave of hype and clearly enjoyed playing in front of the fans at MSG.

Laf is also more of a shooter than a playmaker, as his shooting percentages are noticeably high at 17% in his first two seasons. This year he was expected to have a breakout season, however that has been all but absent as the 21-year-old has only scored eight points in 22 games so far. So what happened to his breakout year?

It might be a little more simple: Laf, like the rest of the Rangers, is struggling to score. The problem is not that he is not getting chances, or not getting good scoring opportunities. It is actually quite the opposite, as he, like Kakko, is getting more high danger scoring chances per game than seasons prior, as well as shooting more. The problem is in the shooting percentage, which is currently at a weak 7.32%. Nowhere near his numbers from the two seasons prior, and this shows that he is incredibly snake-bit. What backs this information up is his individual expected goals, which means he should be at around five goals this season, instead only scoring 4. Additionally, if he were scoring at his normal shooting percentage of 17%, he would have about 7 goals so far. Combined with the fact that the rest of the team is not scoring, which means his assists are going to go down, Laf is the victim of the Rangers not being able to score at 5v5.

The question of “is Lafrenière a bust” has an easy answer: no. Lafrenière is getting better as an offensive player, and the statistics back this up as his offensive numbers such as high danger scoring chances are increasing. For reference, in 56 games played in 2020-21, he had only 36 high danger scoring chances, and the season after, in 79 games played, he had only 61. In 21 games played this year, he has 30, which is good for at least one and a half high danger scoring chances a game. He is above players like Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and David Pastrnak in HDCF (high danger chances for) and is playing really good hockey. He is even higher than the Rangers’ own Mika Zibanejad! It is tough to see Lafrenière’s point totals and make the claim, “have faith!” but that is what Rangers fans need to do. Look at the bigger picture, it is not all doom and gloom as it seems.

Let’s zoom out. What can be done to fix this?

In order to fix this problem, and to get Kakko and Lafrenière scoring more frequently, a couple of changes need to be made. We also have to zoom out a little bit, and look at the bigger picture amongst the New York Rangers

This team is unlucky, head to toe

The problem with Lafrenière and Kakko’s production is part of a greater story. It is no secret that the Rangers have struggled to score, as stated before, the Rangers are 8th in expected goals, with 77 expected goals on the season. Currently so far, they only have 61 goals to show for it. They also have one of the worst shooting percentages in the LEAGUE, at a measly 3.92%. For reference, that is near teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Edmonton Oilers, who all have shooting percentages around three percent.

When the Rangers stars are struggling to score, it is no doubt that players down the lineup like Kakko, Lafrenière, and more will struggle to score as well. The whole team is not finishing, so those secondary points such as assists are going to come less frequently.

Keeping the kid line is not working

During the playoffs, Laf and Kakko, along with Chytil, started clicking together. They became known as the “Kid Line,” as they were all young and are all former first round picks by the Rangers. Since then, however, they have struggled to succeed together. Filip Chytil may have a bit of a scoring touch, but he struggles to generate offense otherwise. Furthermore, by playing on the third line together, all three players are getting significantly less ice time.

A solution to this might be to switch up the forward lines. Perhaps promoting Chytil to second line center could be a recipe for success, as Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin haven’t really connected like Panarin and Ryan Strome did for years prior. Additionally, it also might help to place Lafrenière and Kakko in the top-6, to get them more playing time. They are clearly more valuable to the New York Rangers organization than Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey, who should be on the third line instead of the Rangers budding stars. Regardless of the lineup decisions to be made, playing Laf and Kakko with the Rangers top line stars is a recipe for future success.

Put them on power play unit one

Lastly, but most importantly, they need to play on the power play. While the combination of Vincent Trocheck, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Adam Fox is enticing to keep, as they are incredibly successful, the second power play unit is invisible. Where the top unit is scoring at a relatively solid rate, the second unit has not registered a single goal on the power play this season. This is unacceptable for the Rangers, and without two successful, dangerous units, they will not be able to succeed.

Putting Laf and Kakko on unit one can be greatly beneficial for a number of reasons. To start, the Rangers top unit is not as good as it was last year, partially due to the amount of success Mika Zibanejad has from his Alex Ovechkin-like spot at the top of the left circle. Because he was so dangerous at that spot, it seems as though teams have figured him out. To keep teams guessing, having another sniper like Lafrenière might end up making the Rangers’ power play all the more deadly. Moreover, it would give Laf confidence in his scoring abilities, which would likely result in an increase in his 5v5 production. This is not a call to take Zibanejad off of the top unit; but maybe rotate Trocheck or Kreider out for Kakko or Lafrenière to change the dynamic of the power play. Kakko specifically is pretty deadly from the slot, and giving him an opportunity on the power play, with an easier chance to score and less bodies on the ice to block his shot will give him more confidence.

Lafrenière’s abilities as a shooter makes it harder to put him on the first unit, because ideally he would be taking the position of Artemi Panarin on the top of the right circle, for a one timer like shot. This is straight up not going to happen, so there is no point in deliberating about it. To solve this issue, maybe the second unit should have more playing time. Every time the Rangers’ get a power play, maybe it would help to alternate the units more frequently to give the second unit more of an opportunity to score, because as it is now, the only playing time they get on the power play is usually with less than 30 seconds left.

TL;DR

The bottom line is a couple of things. One, the Rangers, specifically Kakko and Lafrenière, are snakebit. Two, they do not get ANY playing time on the power play, which means they aren’t going to score as many goals as they are expected to. Three, they don’t have any impact on the power play as it is now, and the amount of confidence they have in their abilities lowers because of it. To solve these problems, they need to be playing higher in the lineup, more frequently on the power play, and simply, they need to get lucky!

(statistics were taken from naturalstattrick.com and hockeyviz.com)

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