Rangers’ Kakko showing his potential, swagger

Imagine being told at age 18 that you have landed the job of your dreams.

The only caveats: it would be more than 4,000 miles from your hometown and the cultural and language differences are substantial.

For Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko, this was the reality he faced after the New York Rangers selected him second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft.

With three goals and a shootout tally over the past two games, Kakko is starting to acclimate to his new surroundings.

“There is just a whole new level of swagger to him that I hadn’t seen since he got here,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “Not only on the ice, but off the ice. There is a comfort level that he is attaining, and you could see it in his face. There is a lot more smiling and a lot more swagger.”

Kakko never doubted his hockey ability but needed time to familiarize himself with a new lifestyle in a new city before his on-ice skills could match the lofty expectations that came with his premium draft position.

The challenges facing young professional athletes from overseas are often overlooked, yet quite extensive when put in perspective.

“He works so hard, it’s not easy coming over here as an 18-year-old and not speaking the language,” Chris Kreider, a former Rangers’ first-round pick, said of Kakko. “When I was 18, I was struggling to play college hockey. I was a little homesick and I was 45 minutes away from home.”

Teammate Brendan Lemieux spent two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets before being traded to the Rangers and saw firsthand how Patrik Laine also made the transition from being a teenager in Finland to playing in the NHL. Laine, 21, also had heavy expectations from the start after being selected second overall in 2016..

“He’s (Kakko) smarter than 99 percent of young, skilled hockey players that I have ever played it with,” Lemieux said. “He has figured out already, which takes a lot of guys five or six years, that simplicity can lead to offense. It’s pretty incredible to see and he is fun to play with.”

New York’s top line center Mika Zibanejad has been dealing with a neck injury but should return to action in the coming weeks, which will alter the makeup of the Rangers’ forward combinations. Kakko has excelled on the Rangers’ third line in recent games, but is he ready for a more prominent role?

“He’s not going to be intimidated from any other challenge that is presented to him,” Quinn said. “I’m not worried about moving him up [the lineup].”

Whether he moves up in the depth chart now or continues to work his way up throughout the season, Kakko is quickly becoming one of New York’s most dynamic players.

“I think he’s continuing to build on his confidence level,” Quinn said. “He has certainly proven that he can have success this year in the National Hockey League, that’s for sure.”

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round

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With the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round and Round-Robin phase of the NHL’s 2019-20 season restart in the books, we have our 16-team playoff field officially set.

Because of the unusual circumstances around the postseason this year, we also have a head start on the race for the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Let’s take a quick look at how that race is already starting to unfold.

We will update this on a weekly basis throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A couple of surprising goalies find themselves near the top of the list after they helped their teams pull off a couple of upsets, while some of the games brightest young stars are beginning to make names for themselves.

There are also a couple of seasoned veterans showing they can still help carry their teams.

The Early Favorites

1. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. He got benched in one game, did not start another, and is STILL at the top of the list. That is how good he was in his other starts to help shut down the Maple Leafs. He posted a .956 save percentage in the series and recorded two shutouts, including the series-clinching Game 5 win. Goaltending was always going to make or break the Blue Jackets’ season, and their duo has been better than anyone could have possibly anticipated. It has continued in the playoffs.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Just a completely dominant showing by Aho in the qualifying round against the Rangers. He finished with eight points in the three games and is the cornerstone piece of the Hurricanes organization. Another deep run by the Hurricanes could take him from “underrated star” to “superstar” status.

3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Kuemper has proven to be a steal for the Coyotes since they acquired him two years ago, and he was the biggest reason they were able to get through the Predators in the qualifying round. They are going to need an even bigger effort from him to get through Colorado.

4. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. What a qualifying round series he had for the Canucks. He is a key part of their young core — perhaps the most important part given his position and minutes — and was the best player on the team against Minnesota. He played massive minutes, helped the Canucks dominate possession when he was on the ice, and was the team’s leading point-producer against the Wild.

5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The recipe for Montreal having success in the playoffs always revolved around Price channeling the 2014-15 version of himself. He was great against Pittsburgh and a huge part of the Canadiens’ upset win. The only reason he is not higher is because the Montreal team in front of him did such a great job shutting down the Penguins and rendering their offense useless throughout Games 3 and 4 of the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

6. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways the series against Edmonton was a vintage Toews performance. He schooled some players defensively, scored big goals, and played a huge role in the Blackhawks winning. His offensive game has really rebounded the past two years and it was great against the Oilers.

7. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. The second rookie to make our list, Kubalik started the Edmonton series with a five-point game, then finished it by scoring the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win. He has been an outstanding addition to the top of the Blackhawks lineup and a much-needed impact player.

8. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. It was always assumed that a goalie was going to significantly impact the Jets-Flames series. That is exactly what happened. It just was not the goalie everyone expected. It was Talbot, and not Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, that ended up dominating the series as the Flames’ starter posted a .945 save percentage in the four games.

9. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers had no answer for Svechnikov and Aho in their qualifying round series, and they are going to be a thorn in the side of the league for the foreseeable future.

10. Scott Laughton, Philadelphia Flyers. Probably the biggest surprise name on the list so far, and the only player that played in the Round-Robin phase. Laughton was the surprise star for the Flyers as they rolled through the round-robin to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. If they get this type of depth scoring they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

Honorable mentions: Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Sean Monathan (Flames), Mark Stone (Golden Knights), Anthony Beauvillier (Islanders)

More:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers vs. Canadiens: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Flyers and Canadiens.

1. Carey Price found a time machine

Montreal pulled off the biggest upset of the Qualifying Round, dispatching the Penguins in four games. Their goaltender, who many had doubted before the series (*raises hand*), was a primary factor in their series win. Price posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a shutout. He was busy as Montreal allowed the sixth-most shots at 5-on-5 (96, via Natural Stat Trick). He’ll match up against Carter Hart, who’s been outstanding as well with a .971 ESSV% in two appearances.

2. Depth leads the way

Over the course of Philadelphia’s three round-robin games, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Travis Konecny all combined for a grand total of zero goals. The Flyers won all three games with Scott Laughton (three goals) and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (two goals) leading the way. Teams become champions because of their depth, and once their stars get going, there’s no question Philadelphia is capable of running through the Eastern Conference.

Montreal also got help from players down their lineup. Paul Byron finished with four points, Jesper Kotkaniemi scored twice, and Artturi “Playoff” Lehkonen had a goal and two assists in the series. Rookie Nick Suzuki held his own with two points. Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, and Philip Danault were all held in check. The Canadiens can’t bank on Price putting up another stellar ESSV%. They’ll need more from their offensive leaders in order to knock off the Flyers.

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3. Oskar Lindblom‘s possible presence

He’s beaten Ewing’s sarcoma, is skating back home in Sweden, and there’s a chance he could play in the playoffs. Lindblom’s is a remarkable story. The 23-year-old forward was diagnosed with the form of bone cancer in December, completed chemotherapy last month, and according to Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher, could play should they still be around in September.

If he does join the Flyers in Toronto this week, he’ll have to quarantine for four days and have four COVID-19 tests come back negative before he’s able to skate with this teammates.

“We will see how it goes,” Lindblom told Gefle Dagblad last week. “I feel that my conditioning is getting better and better each day. … It’s fantastic being back on the ice after all that’s happened.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

4. The head coaches are old, old friends.

The 1981-82 and 1982-83 Central Hockey League Salt Lake City Golden Eagles featured a pair of future NHL head coaches. Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault were once teammates, and once again are foes in the NHL playoffs. The two have coached against one another in the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice. Their last meeting came in 2017 when Vigneault’s Rangers bested Julien’s Canadiens. Their biggest stakes matchup was, of course, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Julien and the Bruins topped the Canucks and Vigneault in seven games.

5. Flyers in 5

For as much as Price carried the Canadiens against Pittsburgh, Hart’s play has matched what the Canadiens netminder has done so far. There’s also the aspect of Philadelphia’s bottom line players becoming key contributors that, when the stars and a power play that went 0-for-8 get going, could be too much for Montreal to handle.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

MORE:
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.