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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.