February 07, 2018

Kapanen eager to establish himself in Toronto

IS HE DUE? Kasperi Kapanen might finally be on the verge of cracking Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster. Photo: Getty Images/Claus Andersen

Kasperi Kapanen got himself open at center ice, smoothly picked up the breakout pass from Auston Matthews and quickly blazed up the left wing. With every stride increasing his speed exponentially, Kapanen was on the verge of skating past Brandon Montour when the Anaheim Ducks’ defenseman was able to pivot and get himself ready for Kapanen’s push towards the net. Instead, the young Finn identified Montour’s now static posture and hooked off towards the boards to look for a pass. Holding on to the puck for just the right amount of time, Kapanen found Matthews going hard towards the far post and hit the Leafs superstar with a sizzling pass right on the tape for an easy tap-in goal. In a night where the Toronto Maple Leafs scored seven goals on the Ducks – many of them of the gorgeous variety – this was perhaps the most important one. At least for Kasperi Kapanen.

With names like Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Auston Matthews up with the big club for almost two full seasons now, touted Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen has found himself somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Originally brought up in Finnish Liiga organization KalPa, Kapanen was on the top roster playing against pros when he was just 16 years old. When he turned 17, he remained on the KalPa roster for a full season, scoring seven goals and adding seven assists for an impressive 14 points in 47 games. Then came the 2014 NHL Entry draft where Kapanen was selected as the 22nd pick overall in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

However, just one year later he was traded to Toronto as one of the Leafs biggest prizes in the blockbuster deal that saw superstar Phil Kessel move from Toronto to Pittsburgh.

Toronto was understandably high on Kapanens skill and smarts, but it is his tremendous speed that made – and still makes – him stand out. While he is ways away from entering such a conversation, should Kasperi Kapanen ever find himself in the NHL All-Star games the other NHL speedsters such as Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid might have to watch out because the young Finn can flat out fly.

In his first season with the Leafs, Kapanen played a total of 9 games in the NHL, but ended up spending most of the season with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL where he picked up 25 points (9+16) in 44 games. The following season, 2016-17, ended up being more of the same for Kapanen. He did score his first NHL goal in his 8-game stint with the big club, but it turned out to be another AHL season for the young Finnish speedster, a season in which he improved his point total to 43 (18+25) in 43 games. Ahead of the 2017-18 season the objective was clear in Kapanens mind:

”I entered the pre-season with the mindset that I will gain a roster spot [with the Leafs]. I am still young but I have this burning desire to play in the NHL and it is not always easy to be patient. I feel like I’ve had a good pre-season and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished to this point.”

While he didn’t get a chance with the Leafs immediately, his continually strong play in the AHL earned him regular call-ups to the NHL in order to prove his mettle. After a particularly strong effort versus the Islanders recently during one such call-up, Kapanen admitted to Finnish Ilta-Sanomat he is very much aware of his place in the lineup right now:

“I feel like I’ve proven that I belong in the NHL. My role right now isn’t that of a Auston Matthews or a William Nylander on that first line – but all I can do is play the hand I’ve been dealt, as well as I can.”

With coach Mike Babcock seemingly opting for speed over power – recently replacing Matt Martin with Kapanen and Roman Polak with Travis Dermott in the lineup – Kapanen has now found himself up with the big club for a period of two weeks. A stint in which he has gotten into five games and scored two points (1+1) along the way. The optimist would argue that Kapanens inspired rush versus the Ducks in the Leafs most recent game could be seen as a product of the added confidence that comes with staying in the lineup for a longer period of time. Coach Babcock is not in the business of handing out promises though:

“Kappy’s a guy that we all believe is going to play in the National Hockey League a long time,” Babcock told Sportsnet at the beginning of Kapanens call-up two weeks ago. “He probably believes he should be on the team, but it’s just one of those things. We’ll give him an opportunity.”

With the trade deadline looming large, it remains to be seen how the Leafs approach the situation. Do they sacrifice prospects to acquire another veteran presence in anticipation of a strong playoff run? If so, Kapanens future with the Maple Leafs could potentially be in danger. Should the organization go in another direction, perhaps unloading an upcoming free agent like James van Riemsdyk or someone like Matt Martin who sits on a large contract with years remaining on his deal, the trade deadline could instead mean Kapanen gains a regular roster spot with the team just ahead the playoffs.

Regardless of what transpires in the next few weeks, Kasperi “Kappy” Kapanen has proven he can skate, pass and score at the NHL level. The question now is if he’ll be doing it for the Leafs or not?

Hampus Duvefelt hampus_duvefelt@live.se
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