Kapanen Unlikely for Maple Leafs Opening Roster

Kasperi Kapanen has quickly become a fan favourite in Toronto, playing for both the Marlies and the Maple Leafs. While he was very successful in the AHL, he hasn’t been given much of an opportunity to produce at the NHL level.

He was drafted in 2014 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same year his close friend and teammate William Nylander was drafted 14 spots earlier. He was acquired by the Leafs in the Phil Kessel trade, where Kapanen was one of the key pieces in return, and has been developing his game in the AHL, in hopes of one day sticking with the Leafs.

Track Record in Leafs Organization

2015-16 Season

In his first AHL season, Kapanen scored 25 points in 44 games, which is considered steady production for a 19-year-old. He continued this production at the international level, scoring 5 points in 7 games including the golden goal for Finland at the World Junior Championships.

The Leafs called him up for his first taste of NHL action near the end of the 2015-16 season, the same year that the Leafs finished last. The son of former NHLer, Sami Kapanen, he was held pointless in 9 games but showed great speed and skill.

2016-17 Season

Kapanen took another step forward in his development the following season and earned more NHL time because of it. He had a very consistent AHL season, scoring 43 points in 43 games. What was more impressive was that he developed his two-way game, and earned time on the penalty kill. Late in the season, Kapanen was called up where he played on the fourth line and put his improved two-way game to use.

Kasperi Kapanen scores a goal on Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby in Game 2 of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Kapanen Scores Big-Time Goals

Kapanen is gaining a reputation for being a clutch performer. On the fourth line, he managed to score 3 goals in 14 total games, two of which were in playoffs and further cemented his reputation as a player who can score timely goals on the big stage.

Here are two of his most notable clutch goals:

2016 World Junior U-20 Championships

Kapanen wasn’t exactly lighting up the 2016 WJC, but nothing could keep him off the scoresheet in the gold medal game against Russia. He used his great skating ability to get around the first defender, then beat two more Russian players with a wraparound to win gold for Finland, 4-3 in overtime.

The individual effort is off the charts on this goal and Kapanen couldn’t have picked a better time to step up.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

His energetic play kept him in the lineup during the playoffs, playing with Brian Boyle and Matt Martin. During overtime against the Capitals, Boyle made a behind-the-back pass and Kapanen made no mistake, with the Leafs winning 4-3 in double-overtime.

Some NHL players, such as Justin Williams, are known for finding the back of the net in the most important games of the season. It is far too early to tell if Kapanen is going to be that type of player, but in the small sample size of his career, he has scored some timely goals.

Kapanen’s Role With the Maple Leafs

Slotted in on the fourth line, Kapanen looked like a solid two-way forward with great speed and an effective forecheck. He wasn’t scared to throw a hit or dig in the corners, and still, he has the skill to one day be a top-six forward.

He has improved significantly since his first taste of NHL action when he didn’t produce. He thrived in a different role and showed he was up to the task. The fact that he isn’t expected to start in the NHL next season speaks volumes as to how skilled the Leafs’ forwards are without him.

Where Does Kapanen Fit?

Kapanen is a right-winger, which is probably the most competitive position on the Leafs’ roster. The four right-wingers currently in the lineup are William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman.

I can’t see Kapanen beating out either of the first three next season, and Hyman just signed a four-year contract worth $9 million. Hyman also plays a very important grinding role for the Leafs.

Without an injury or trade, it doesn’t look like Kapanen will begin the season with the Leafs. Therefore, there is no sense in trying to picture him in the starting lineup, as he is expected to play most of the season in the AHL.  It’s not he isn’t good enough, but rather there’s little room for him.

Waiver Ineligibility

On a more positive note, Kapanen doesn’t have to clear waivers to be sent to the Marlies, unlike other young forwards such as Kerby Rychel or Josh Leivo.

Josh Leivo, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Hockey
Josh Leivo (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Therefore, he doesn’t have to be a healthy scratch and can be sent down to the AHL or called up to the NHL without risk. In the AHL, Kapanen can continue mastering his skills, serving as the best option to be called up when needed.

It’s a shame that there isn’t room for him on the Leafs roster. Once Nylander makes the transition to centre, a spot on the right wing will open up, making roster decisions like these less stressful.