Maple Leafs Problem: Is Kapanen Helping the Tavares Line?

I start this post with a question I have considered since the Toronto Maple Leafs game against the Montreal Canadiens: Is John Tavares hurt?

The Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs and losing is seldom good. However, did the team lose the effectiveness of its newly-named captain after he was pin-balled by Canadiens Jesperi Kotkaniemi and then totally crushed by the big defenseman Shea Weber.

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Other than the fact that Tavares was obviously rocked, what’s so interesting is that the video clearly shows teammate Kasperi Kapanen is skating by and literally does nothing. Perhaps, the play is going by him and he feels he needs to get back on defense?

However, what makes this play also stand out for me is that it comes barely three weeks after a preseason interview where Kapanen, who knew he would be taking Zach Hyman’s spot on the Tavares line, had vowed that he would play more “nasty” this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

3 Thoughts About the Play and Tavares and Kapanen

I have three thoughts about this play. First, from what I could see and tell, the hit was not a penalty. It was very tough, but fair – in that hits such as this are allowed within NHL rules. Good for Weber, bad for Tavares.

Second, I think Tavares was hurt. From the video I saw, it was obvious he got crushed. He never blinked and kept playing, but his knees buckled. I think it shook him up more than he let on. In the games I’ve seen since, he hasn’t been the same.

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Third, Kapanen was right there and skated away. He might have responded somehow – such as in laying a hit on Weber, just because Weber’s action needed some response. But, he didn’t.

Is Tavares Injured?

Obviously, I have no way of knowing how badly Tavares was hurt on the hit, but his line’s play was less strong during the St. Louis Blue’s game than it was previously. Tavares played 20 minutes and had zero shots on goal – zero! Marner played 23 minutes and I barely noticed him.

After the Blues’ game, during his post-game comments, Babcock implied that the Tavares line missed Hyman: “Hyman is good, eh? We’ve just got to figure it out over time because we need them to be dominant, as you know. Everyone has just got to figure it out and keep working and grinding.”

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Maybe it’s as simple as the line needing Hyman back. Kapanen is an offensive player, but he isn’t as good a forechecker as Hyman is. In fact, who is really? The team obviously misses him.

Kapanen’s Having a Tough Time Fitting In

Kapanen played with Auston Matthews for most of last season. In fact, for reasons never explained, Matthews was rumored as asking Maple Leafs management to play Kapanen on another line. Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun reported that rumor. It was an interesting ask for Matthews because both players had career seasons playing together. One has to wonder, if that rumor is true, what the issue might have been. (From: ‘SIMMONS SAYS: Kawhi wanted to be part player, part GM’ –Toronto Sun – July 6, 2019).

Coming into this season, Kapanen knew his role with the team had changed. When he played with Matthews, he skated fast and shot often. This year, trying to fill in for Hyman calls for different skills and a willingness to be tough on the forecheck. So far, it hasn’t worked that well. Hyman is driven in ways that Kapanen is not. Few NHL players fight for the puck like Hyman does.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Andreas Johnsson Kasperi Kapanen
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews celebrates with teammates Andreas Johnsson and wing Kasperi Kapanen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

In the four games Kapanen has played, he’s looked decent sometimes and invisible others. But, allowing Weber to double-up his captain without response wasn’t what he said he would do or how he would play.

Specifically, in an earlier post I wrote about Kapanen, I reported on a Sept. 13 interview by Andi Petrillo and Dave Feschuk on Leafs Lunch. That interview covered a number of topics, including Kapanen’s personal goals for the upcoming season.

In listening to the interview, it was nice to hear how much Kapanen valued being part of the team. He said he felt lucky to be wanted. Then he talked about becoming a stronger defensive player and laid out his personal goal to become better all-round. He also noted that, because Nazem Kadri was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, he believed his job on the team was to “bring some grit and nastiness to the game.” He believed he could provide it.

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But, that’s exactly what he failed to do after Weber smashed Tavares. As I write this post, and consider what Kapanen might have been thinking during the game, I wonder if the broken-stick-throwing incident might have been in part pent-up frustration for realizing he had missed the opportunity to play with that grit he promised.

The Job Interview Continues

As I listened to that early-September interview, I remember being surprised at Kapanen’s dedication to becoming “nasty” on the ice. I never thought he could possess that “skillset.” My assessment was that he was a speedy, dynamic winger, who would eventually play himself into a top-six role with the team. I had been impressed by his ability to replace Nylander during his holdout last season and how, even after he returned, Kapanen scored wherever he’d played. But I never saw him as “nasty,” which was the self-definition he gave himself during that interview.

Toronto Maple Leafs Kasperi Kapanen
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

So far, physical seems out of his comfort zone. Still, there’s a lot of time left for Kapanen to add that aspect to the Tavares and Marner duo. Hyman won’t return to the line-up for about 14 more games and, given the team’s strong play thus far, there’s some wiggle room for Kapanen to find a better fit in his new role.

Let’s hope he finds that role in the time he’s given. Let’s also hope I’m wrong about Tavares.