Maple Leafs’ Dark Horse: Can’t Stop Kapanen

With the Maple Leafs’ recent downturn in performance, one thing fans can remain excited about is Kasperi Kapanen. Since the beginning of the 2018–19 season, Kapanen has been a major contributor for his hockey club. Despite facing much adversity this season–such as uncertainty with his role in the lineup, and linemate Auston Matthews’ injury hiatus–he has been producing results that aid in his team’s success and his status in the NHL.

Kapanen was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Level Draft (22nd overall). In 2015, the Maple Leafs acquired him via the Phil Kessel trade and placed him on the Toronto Marlies active roster. During his time in the AHL, he was able to adjust to the North American style of play while largely integrating his European skill set. With good speed, hockey IQ, and great puck-moving abilities, Kapanen was able to get ahead of the play and make passes that resulted in scoring chances for his teammates.

Kasperi Kapanen, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Say what you will about Fehr and Moore, but Kasperi Kapanen will be in the NHL this season. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

He would continue to go up-and-down between the Marlies and Maple Leafs for three seasons before solidifying his spot in the lineup this season. Despite many feeling he would lose his job with the return of William Nylander, he has put any doubts to rest with his performance this season.

Related: William Nylander’s Search for Success This Season

Kapanen’s Versatility an Asset for Maple Leafs

A difficult feat for many players, Kapanen has the ability to tailor his style of play to the opponent his team faces. Keeping the puck tight to his body, he maintains solid puck control and poise against teams with a physical/containment style of play. Against faster puck-moving teams, he utilizes explosive acceleration and physicality to win the puck. The ability to alter his skillset keeps opponents guessing on how he will exploit weaknesses on the ice and turn them into scoring chances for the Maple Leafs.

Mental Fortitude Serving Kapanen Well

From contract negotiations and cap space, to injuries and trade rumours, there has been a list of distractions that could have impacted any Maple Leafs’ performance. Despite these, Kapanen has remained focused and has proved able to execute his game plan on the ice. When asked if he has given any thought toward contract renewal at the end of the season, his answer showed just how engaged he is in his current performance. He told Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun,

“No—we have only played 26 games, so I don’t think there is any reason to think about that,” Kapanen said. “I just feel like I have been playing well and getting better.”(from ‘Kapanen not letting mind wander to what could happen contract-wise next year’, The Toronto Sun-11/29/18)

In-game, Kapanen doesn’t stray from his assignments and keeps a level head in critical situations. You won’t see him get sucked into emotional penalties despite his willingness to grab someone in a scrum or ‘mix it up’ with someone in the corner.

Boston Bruins' David Backes
Boston Bruins’ David Backes (42) takes a shot as Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kasperi Kapanen (24) defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

He is smart enough to realize his contributions are far greater when he is on the ice and generating offense. His ability to remain focused on what needs to be accomplished has been a major asset for the Maple Leafs.

Kapanen’s Offensive Development Is Showing

There was never any doubt Kapanen would be a strong player for Toronto. In the initial stages of his professional career, he would be labeled as a playmaker. Ample speed and his ability to see the ice well aided in his ability to complete great setup passes in the offensive zone. In the neutral zone, he was able to select the best skating routes and passing options that would result in favourable zone entries.

Related: Kapanen Taking Advantage of Nylander’s Absence

Now up with the Maple Leafs on a permanent basis, Kapanen’s offensive prowess has enabled him to tally more goals than assists. His opportunistic shooting has earned him critical goals in big games to help his team win. His newfound shooting ability paired with his existing offensive skillset have made him a very dangerous player. Playing on a line with Matthews certainly helps generate results, but finishing against the league’s top goalies is no easy feat in itself.

Other members of the Toronto Maple Leafs are also realizing their potential, but none have overcome the same obstacles as Kapanen has. Walking around downtown Toronto, it’s a great feeling to see more and more No. 24 Kapanen jerseys. It is hard not to be excited about such a great player and one can’t help but wonder about what the future holds for the young Finn.