Kaapo Kakko’s teammates had already gone down the hall, but he lingered for a moment longer. Staring down at the Amalie Arena ice, he grasped the flesh in front of him, watching the Lightning celebrate victory in a game he had not played.
Two days later, Kakko — a surprise scratch for the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals — said he had not been given an explanation for sitting when he felt he was playing his best hockey during the postseason. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, who refused to explain the decision after the 2-1 loss, said at the team’s breakup day that it came down to what he felt was best.
“Trying to win a hockey game,” Gallant said. “And just dressing my lineup. So when we sit down and talk about our lineup, that’s what we do. We love the kid, he’s a good player. He’s a good, young player, but we just thought [that was] the best lineup for trying to win that game.”
Going with Dryden Hunt, who had not played since Game 3 of the first round, ahead of Kakko was an eyebrow-raising decision in the moment that does not look much better with the benefit of hindsight. The Rangers also dressed Ryan Strome, who played 8:46 laboring through a pelvis injury before leaving the game — though Strome said Monday he would have regretted not suiting up.
Kakko helped turn the Rangers’ Kid Line into one of the team’s most effective forechecking groups, developing a strong game below the hash marks despite scoring just once in the last 16 playoff games. Asked Monday if he felt he was able to be the best version of himself this season, the former No. 2 overall pick said no, due to the injuries that limited him to just 43 regular-season games.
“Maybe in the playoffs,” he said. “I think in playoffs, I played maybe the best hockey I’ve ever been playing.”
It is a complicated summer for general manager Chris Drury, and the Rangers could be vulnerable to an offer sheet between $4.2 million and $6.3 million due to likely obligations elsewhere on their cap sheet.
As he heads into restricted free agency, though, Kakko did say the way things ended wouldn’t affect how he views that process, beyond taking more motivation into his offseason training program.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I like to play here, so I don’t think so.”
Gallant, at least, still views Kakko as a key part of the future.
“They’ll all be back,” he said, asked about whether the Kid Line could stay together in 2022-23.
Reminded that might not be a guarantee, though, he admitted, “Yeah, that’s a possibility.”