A Glimpse at the Future Excites the Rangers

STAMFORD, Conn. — In a No. 45 practice jersey, sprinting up ice and conversing with teammates, Kaapo Kakko looked like any other eager rookie at the Rangers’ prospect development camp this week.

But those other prospects were not greeted by a throng of clapping fans at the airport upon arrival in New York. Their every move has not been chronicled on social media since the N.H.L. draft on Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Kakko, an 18-year-old Finnish wing, stands out for more than the speed and power his 6-foot-2 frame could soon bring to the lineup. The No. 2 pick last Friday, he is the highest Rangers draft pick since they selected defenseman Brad Park second in 1966.

The hoopla around him is in stark contrast to what Dave Maloney, a former Rangers captain, experienced in 1974 when he was a first-round pick as a 17-year-old.

Maloney, now an MSG Network commentator, said he merely received a phone call from his lawyer to relay he was chosen by the Rangers.

He said MSG had a draft show at Madison Square Garden and fans were chanting Kakko’s name “a half-hour before we even came on the air.”

Maloney recalled that he did not even visit Manhattan for the first time until he and his fellow rookie defenseman Ron Greschner were summoned for an exhibition game.

“We got out of our taxi on Seventh Avenue in front of the Garden and we didn’t even know where to go,” Maloney said.

Kakko has explored Manhattan in recent days. He and the young Rangers were at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night to see the home team edge the Toronto Blue Jays, and they got their first glimpse of the Garden with a group tour on Wednesday.

The entire experience has to feel like a whirlwind for the native of Turku, Finland — population just under 190,000.

“It’s fun to be here, so nice,” he said. “My next goal is to play in the N.H.L. next season. That’s it.”

Kakko has been joined this week by two more pearls in the franchise pipeline: forward Vitali Kravtsov, 19, the ninth overall pick in 2018, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, 23, a fourth-round selection in 2014. Both have been playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

All three have a legitimate chance to impact the Rangers this season, which had General Manager Jeff Gorton in a buoyant mood three months before training camp begins.

“To see them all in the same place, to see the level of players that I think we’ve acquired, it’s exciting for everybody here,” said Gorton, who has had six first-round selections over the past three drafts.

Kravtsov was born in the port city of Vladivostok, more than 6,400 miles from Manhattan. He arrived in the United States two months ago to train and become acclimated.

“This is a big start to my career,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of Ranger games on TV. I pretty much know every player.”

Kravtsov may need to learn some new names by the time the Rangers open the season at home against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 3.

The Rangers could make a splash when free agency opens next Monday. Forwards like Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Wayne Simmonds and the former Ranger Mats Zuccarello are available.

The Rangers have blueline depth after acquiring Jacob Trouba in a trade with Winnipeg and signing the college standout Adam Fox in the off-season.

Among defensemen with N.H.L. experience, only Brady Skjei is signed beyond 2020-21, and the Rangers have decisions to make on the high-priced veterans Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith and Marc Staal, all of whom have two years remaining on their contracts.

Their franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist, 37, also has two years left on his contract, and his 23-year-old backup Alexandar Georgiev proved himself worthy of the N.H.L. last season.

But Shesterkin, the same age as Lundqvist was as a rookie in 2005, may be his heir apparent instead. Shesterkin comes to the Rangers with years of international experience; he had a 1.11 goals against average with 24 wins in 28 games last season for SKA St. Petersburg, a top K.H.L. team.

“Henrik Lundqvist is my idol since I was a little boy,” Shesterkin said through an interpreter. “I very much look forward to seeing him on the ice and learning what he does on the ice. Playing with him someday on the same team, obviously there is some work to be done in that regard.”

In February 2018, in a letter to fans before a trading deadline in which they unloaded several veteran stars, the team officials vowed they were “building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.” That promise is starting manifest on the ice.

A crop of teenagers appears poised to help the Rangers and Coach David Quinn. Forwards Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, first-rounders from 2017, have N.H.L. experience. A 2018 first-rounder, the 6-foot-5 defenseman K’Andre Miller, is making strides at the University of Wisconsin, where he will return for his sophomore season.

“Our core group has been fun, getting to know the guys coming together before we actually put on the Rangers jersey,” Miller said. “I want to get here — this is the place I want to play.”

Maloney acknowledged that maturation timelines are far different since his teenage years splitting time between the Rangers and their farm team. A top prospect like Kakko is way ahead of the curve.

“These kids are so much savvier now,” he said. “They have been coming to these development camps for years. Same with Kravtsov and same with Miller. These are guys who are the elite. There are good reasons to be excited.”