The Toronto Maple Leafs have been one of the most talked-about teams in the NHL with their electric start to the season, which has been sparked by stars like Auston Matthews, Morgan Reilly, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. With all of that talent, it can be easy to overlook the supporting cast, but Kasperi Kapanen has developed into a player who deserves a lot of credit for his contributions to Toronto’s 6-1 start.
Kapanen has been a great complementary player for Matthews and registered three multi-point games during the Maple Leafs’ 4-0 road trip through Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Washington. Now in his fourth season in the Toronto system, it appears as though Kapanen has found his groove and could very well be on the verge of a breakout season with the Maple Leafs.
Kapanen Has Paid His Dues
Since he was acquired in the Phil Kessel trade in 2015, it has been clear the Maple Leafs have had an exciting prospect to work with in Kapanen. Just one year prior to the deal, he was a first-round pick (22nd overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Draft.
The potential has always been there, but over the years, it has been a question of whether or not the Maple Leafs could find a spot for him in their top-six forwards, where a player with that much speed belongs. Up until this season, Kapanen has had stints with the Maple Leafs, including 38 games last year (more games than he spent with the Marlies), but Toronto had such a deep roster that it was hard for Kapanen to play above the fourth line.
Goran Stubb, chief European scout for NHL Central Scouting has always believed in him. He recently told Postmedia’s Michael Traikos, “Sometimes it’s difficult for a player to adjust to a new country or a new style of hockey. Some guys are able to make that adjustment right away and other guys it takes a little bit longer.” (from ‘Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen took long road to NHL stardom’, The Toronto Sun – 10/16/18).
When he was on top of his game, he became known as someone who would come through with clutch goals, including a double overtime game-winner in a first-round game against the Washington Capitals in the 2017 playoffs and a go-ahead marker one year later in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round series against the Boston Bruins. Even before those goals, he scored the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship-winning goal for Finland and was put on a postage stamp because of it.
On his current stretch with the Maple Leafs, Kapanen has shown his immense speed. After Monday’s win over the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto goalie Garret Sparks told TSN’s Kristen Shilton, “The obvious thing is, he’s the fastest person on earth.” Kapanen also has skilled hands to match his quick feet, as he showed with his second goal of the game against the Kings.
Kapanen’s current point production will be hard to keep up, but he’s definitely proving he’s capable of being a top-six forward and it will be hard for someone to knock him out of it.
Has Kapanen Filled the Void Left by Nylander?
Yes, we must address the elephant in the room. A big reason why Kapanen is getting more opportunity with the Maple Leafs is because of William Nylander’s holdout while his camp negotiates a new contract. The restricted free agent had spent most of last year plugged on the same line as Matthews and Patrick Marleau, but without him, Toronto needed someone with a similar skill set to round out their top line.
Make no mistake, Nylander is a more skilled forward than Kapanen, but the latter has stepped up in a big way. As well, Kapanen hasn’t needed the puck on his stick to be effective early on this season. He has also excelled in a workmanlike roll, creating turnovers, out-hustling opponents to a loose puck or outworking them along the boards to win a puck battle, similar to what Zach Hyman does.
The Maple Leafs would sure like to have Nylander back, but the Maple Leafs haven’t had any trouble scoring without him. Kapanen’s production and chemistry with Matthews have definitely played a big part in that. As of last weekend, Nylander hasn’t asked for a trade and the Maple Leafs aren’t looking to trade him. As well, Kapanen told The Canadian Press “I’m not trying to take anybody’s spot. (Nylander) is pretty much my brother.”
Time With Marlies Has Set Kapanen up for Success
It may have been frustrating at times not getting his shot with the Maple Leafs, but fortunately, Kapanen joined the organization at a time when their farm system was at its finest. The Marlies have gotten better each season leading up to their Calder Cup championship season in 2017-18.
Through his last two AHL stints, Kapanen scored at nearly a point-per-game pace. As well, Kapanen has looked better each time he has been called up to the Maple Leafs. Getting some international experience with Team Finland at the 2018 World Championships had to have helped with his progression as well.
Last year, it became clear Kapanen was too good for the minor leagues, but it was tough to find space for him where he’d see valuable playing time with the Maple Leafs. That doesn’t look like a problem anymore.