It was always important that in any Phil Kessel trade scenario, the Toronto Maple Leafs got back talented, high-end prospects and/or draft picks. When they finally pulled the trigger on Wednesday, a lot of fans were underwhelmed with the return. I was one of these people.
But really, I don’t know what I was actually expecting. If Toronto wanted a first round pick, a top prospect, an additional ‘B-level’ piece and a roster player, they got it. The second round pick turned to a third round pick isn’t ideal, but I can’t bring myself to care that passionately about it. The salary retention – $1.2M each year for the next seven seasons – does sting, but I don’t think it will actually hinder the Leafs in the long run. I think of it like nasty scratch on the hood of a nice car… it’s ugly, but the car will run just fine.
One of the reasons a lot of folks weren’t terribly impressed with the haul had to do with skepticism surrounding the core piece coming back – Kasperi Kapanen.
More past the jump…
Kapanen? Well, he’s not Derrick Pouliot. The Leafs could really use a stud defensive prospect, and Kapanen is so similar to current prospects William Nylander and Mitch Marner and Connor Brown and Andreas Johnson. A team can only carry so many small, skilled forwards.
This is an unfortunate reaction. We’re really getting ahead of ourselves if we believe that the Leafs are so far along in their rebuild that they can be picky about what positions their top prospects play. Toronto does need another high-end defensive prospect – Morgan Rielly is not enough – but that doesn’t need to be addressed this offseason. They could use another young goaltending prospect as well, but again, no rush.
As soon as the Phil Kessel trade was announced, Kapanen became Toronto’s third-best prospect (and best young right wing in the organization). That is more an indication of how good William Nylander and Mitch Marner are than anything, because Kapanen could still be a top prospect in a number of NHL organizations.
Kapanen came up through the KalPa system in Kuopio, Finland, an organization owned by his father and former NHLer Sami Kapanen (with whom he actually played alongside in KalPa). Making his SM-Liiga debut in the 2012-13 season at just 16-years old, Kapanen scored four goals in 13 games. The following season – his draft year – Kapanen put up seven goals and 14 points in 47 games played as a 17-year old in the country’s top men’s league. He was invited to join Team Finland’s 2014 World Juniors squad, but was unable to participate due to injury.
Heading into the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Kapanen was ranked all over the first round. At his highest, Kapanen was NHL Central Scouting’s top ranked European player, even ahead of Nylander. ESPN’s Corey Pronman had him ranked 9th, while he appeared 11th on Bob McKenzie of TSN’s top prospects list. Independent scouting services, such as McKeen’s and Future Considerations had Kapanen a little further down in the first round, ranking him 18th and 26th respectively.
Since we’re only a year out, I doubt these pre-draft scouting reports are truly out-of-date…
“He’s a good-skating wing and can also play center. He has a smooth and surprisingly fast style that has surprised many unsuspecting defensemen. His tricky puck skills and quick release have paid off in many games and he has good hand-eye coordination. He’s not overly physical, but does not shy away from rough situations.”
The son of former NHL’er Sami Kapanen, Kasperi returned for a second consecutive season in the Liiga having an opportunity this year to skate along side his father .. showed little difficulty adjusting due to his compact, explosive skating ability that allowed him to intimidate defenders with speed .. possesses a steady cadence to his stride pattern which he can quicken and shorten to suit the purpose .. ‘lurk in the weeds’ type of player once he has gained the zone – sets up well as a shooter with a wicked release on his snapshot and wrist shot, maintaining a strong center of balance while shooting .. tends to keep plays to the outside on account of his physical frame, easily over powered and man handled – he relies more on his finesse and 1 on 1 offensive skills .. shows enthusiasm to finish hits and play physical only in the offensive zone while his efforts wane on the back check .. can be selfish and individualistic when playing with his peer group as was the case at the 2014 World U18 Championships .. after winning a bronze medal at the tournament last year where he finished second in tournament goal scoring (7-5-3-8) Kapanen appeared overwhelmed and fatigued in a 10-0 QF thrashing by Sweden.
Kapanen possesses one of the better two-way games in the draft. He has dynamic puck skills, terrific skating ability and hockey sense. He’s the total package on offense. Kapanen displays an explosive skating stride, quick off the hop. Very agile and quick laterally. He is a fantastic skater, with a seemingly effortless stride that generates healthy levels of speed. Lulls opponents to sleep with a pedestrian-looking stride before he explodes into a full-on rush toward the net or loose puck. He skates very well with the puck, has good hands and skates with his head up, looking for passing options. He also does not shy away from the physical side of the game. Possesses a creative mind. Kapanen sees the ice well and appears to have a great IQ for the game.
Kapanen’s consistency in his effort level is our main concern, even more than his lack of strength. Kapanen’s competitive edge takes a bit of a dive when he reaches his own end, and he can improve his defensive effort and awareness. There are times he looks like a dominant two-way guy, but you know where his heart lies–creating offensive chances. He will also go through self-evoked slumps in when the physical game gets ramped up as he does not mind hitting, but does not like to be hit. That point leads us to his size, or lack thereof. He can get outmuscled pretty easily by average- sized opponents along the wall and loses his effectiveness in grittier matches because of this.
While it might not have been the most dramatic slide in NHL Draft history, it was surprising to see Kapanen drop all the way down to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 22nd overall. They finally had legitimate offensive threat on the wing in their prospect pool – one they figured would eventually line up beside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in a few short years. Just a few days after the Draft, the Penguins signed Kapanen to a three-year entry level contract.
In the following year, Kapanen didn’t exactly break out in a big way as some would have hoped.
There was definitely some good. Still only 18 years old after being a very, very young 2014 draftee, Kapanen grew an inch, and now stands at 6’0, 180lbs. He also improved his scoring clip with KalPa, up to 0.51 PPG after scoring 0.29 PPG last season. Kapanen finished with 21 points in 41 games, finishing sixth in team scoring and second league scoring amongst U19 players (behind Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen).
That steady development was somewhat tarnished though by a subpar showing at the U20 World Juniors. Kapanen managed just a single goal in five games, while the team as a whole only scored eight times the entire tournament. It was a rough go for Finland, who went from defending World Champs to being booted in the quarterfinals by Sweden. Kapanen will have a chance to help rectify the situation this year, if Toronto chooses to release him for the tournament (which wouldn’t be a half bad idea).
Following the SM-Liiga season, Kapanen was reassigned by Pittsburgh to AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton as they were closing out the regular season and preparing for a playoff run. Instead of joining the team in a limited role like a lot of young players do, Kapanen immediately made an impact, scoring a goal and assist in the final four games of the season. In the playoffs, Kapanen appeared in seven of the teams eight games, helping the ‘Baby Penguins’ sweep the Syracuse Crunch in the first round before falling to the eventual Calder Cup winners, the Manchester Monarchs, in the second round. Kapanen scored an impressive three goals and five points in seven AHL playoff games (again, as an 18-year old).
This season, one has to imagine that Kapanen will stick in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies full time. While he will only turn 19 later this season, it’s been made very clear by Toronto brass that they will be stockpiling their Marlies and Orlando Solar Bears affiliates with young talent. In an admittedly small sample size, Kapanen proved that he can handle the AHL game, and could slot well into the Marlies’ second line right wing position behind Connor Brown.
Since being drafted, there’ve been little complaints concerning Kapanen’s offence, but he will need to spend a good deal of time this year in the weight room adding some bulk. At 6’0, he’s not necessarily small anymore, but will need to add some strength so as not to be so easy to knock off the puck. Kapanen seems like the kind of player that will continue producing on offence at the AHL level, but it may still be a couple years before the rest of his game catches up and he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.
What are his chances? Shawn Reis recently took a close look at Kapanen’s (and Scott Harrington’s) PCS numbers and there just isn’t enough data yet to make a good prediction. PCS, for the uninitiated, is Prospect Cohort Success – a statistical model that finds historic comparables for players based on age, league, point production, and height. Here’s what Shawn found…
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of using PCS% with players in European leagues because the sample size of historical coparables is significantly lower than it is when we’re looking at CHL players, but here are Kapanen’s numbers anyways.
He’s given a 14.29% chance of reaching 200 NHL games, which certainly isn’t great, but those numbers figure to automatically increase when he plays in either the NHL or AHL for Toronto next season. His PPG of NHL Comparables is 0.45, which is actually a relatively high number regardless of what league you’re comparing in. This might back up the qualitative idea that Kapanen has real top-six upside in the NHL down the road.
As for his historic comparables, I thought it was pretty cool that his 2014-2015 season compares with the 1991-1992 season that his father Sami had over two decades ago.
Popular opinion suggests that Kapanen will likely develop into a top six forward at the next level, with a few believing he’s still capable of becoming a regular first line winger. He very likely won’t become the elite talent that Kessel was, but that’s not the point (hate the trade if you must, but it isn’t Kasperi’s fault).
The point is, Kapanen will be a very important piece for the Leafs going forward, and someone you’re allowed to get excited about. He’ll be a very, very interesting player to watch this season.