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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kasperi Kapanen deserves a full-time role with the Leafs

When Kasperi Kapanen gets put in the lineup he immediately becomes the fastest player on the Leafs and, most nights, the fastest skater on the ice at all times. The dude can skate.

Kapanen was just sent back to the Marlies, but I’m hoping it’s just to keep him on the ice while the Leafs are off for all-star weekend.

It’s not often you see a player with that kind of dynamic speed that has the puck skills to match it. Okay maybe that’s hyperbole as his speed is clearly his biggest strength, but he’s also got great puck skills and that makes for an intriguing combination, to say the least. Kapanen broke out in the AHL last season as a 20-year-old, scoring 18 times on 121 shots and adding 25 assists for 43 points, exactly one point per game. As our former editor Jeff Veillette pointed out, this is no small feat.

Kapanen looks to have taken a slight step back with the Marlies this year in his point and shot totals, but it could be usage related as we don’t have as much as TOI numbers for the AHL, let alone things like zone start percentages.

stats via theahl.com

I’m not sure what to make of his decreased shot rate, but you would prefer to see it increase rather than decrease year over year at his young age. Maybe he’s just not playing as well after the disappointment of not cracking a full-time job with the Leafs out of camp, which he should have. He has racked up shot attempts for himself at a clip of 13.96 per hour in his eight NHL games this year, good for fifth on the team sandwiched between William Nylander and Patrick Marleau. Whatever the case may be, he’s still likely a few years from entering his prime and he’s already a very useful NHL asset, although his boxcar numbers don’t exactly stand out.

Actually, I take that back. When you add in the six playoff games he played in last year he has five goals and zero assists in 31 career games. Playing that many games and not stumbling upon a single assist is actually quite impressive and it also says a lot about the linemates he’s had. Despite that and being deployed with inferior linemates, he’s been effective when given the opportunity. Speaking of those playoff goals, you may recall the second one.

Due to the fact that Kapanen has been deployed strictly on the fourth line, only 19% of his shifts start in the offensive zone, while 35% begin in the defensive zone, but he’s still hovering around break even in the shot share relative to the team when he’s off the ice. Considering the high rate in which he’s scored in the AHL, it would be nice to see him get an opportunity with some skilled linemates like, say, Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

Kapanen’s ability to kill penalties could be a very valuable asset as well and it’s something I’ve been hoping to see since last season when the Marlies started using him there. His speed makes him a threat to create offence while also giving the opposing powerplay zero time to make plays.

On Thursday night in Dallas, Kapanen played 2:17 on the penalty kill and it was a lot of fun. John Klingberg and Ben Bishop have a miscommunication in the above clip and Kapanen is right there to take advantage. Klingberg cuts off the front of the net so, instead of forcing a bad angle shot and giving the puck back, he takes it around the net and passes it all the way back to Ron Hainsey in the neutral zone. The clip cuts it off, but Hainsey has all the time in the world to kill a couple more seconds off the clock and then dump it back in.

Connor Brown does a good job of forcing Alexander Radulov to pass to Klingberg, who Kapanen is headed toward. When Klingberg fumbles the pass Kapanen is right there to get a stick on it and Brown is there to back him up. Brown gets the puck to Kapanen in the neutral zone and they’re off on a 2 on 1. This PK duo has the potential to be really good, especially as the second unit. That way they get out there on the fly more often than not, meaning you don’t have to worry too much about their faceoff abilities, since neither of them are centres. Usually I don’t worry too much about faceoffs, but they have a much stronger correlation to shots and goals on special teams than they do at 5v5. The other positive about getting them out there on the fly is that with their speed and aggressiveness it could be really hard for the powerplay to get through the neutral zone and enter the offensive zone with control, which is another very important factor to penalty killing success.

I really like how Kapanen doesn’t back off after the rush, either. He cuts off Mattias Janmark before he can skate it out of the zone and he’s forced to chip it out into the neutral zone where Ron Hainsey cuts it off and dumps it back in. Kapanen is right on top of Klingberg again when he gets back to the puck and he successfully forces him to wrap the puck around the boards, back to Hainsey who once again took his time before dumping it back into the Dallas zone.

Zach Hyman takes the penalty so a spot on the first PK unit with Leo Komarov opens up and Mike Babcock gives Kapanen the opportunity. He’s then forced to take the faceoff because Komarov gets kicked out and he wins the draw against Jamie Benn! If Kapanen has any faceoff ability at all, he should probably be taking that faceoff instead of Komarov anyway due to it being on his strong side. Regardless, he wins the draw and when Klingberg keeps the puck in Kapanen is right there to knock it down into the Dallas zone. Klingberg must’ve been really sick of Kapanen at this point.

Playing skilled players on the penalty kill is something I advocate regularly, as your best players with five guys aside are probably still better than your bad players when you take one guy off the ice, but Kapanen’s speed brings a whole other element to the penalty kill. He could be the Leafs’ very own Carl Hagelin if they’re really lucky. Kapanen looks like a guy who can contribute in every situation as he also has 18 powerplay goals in 118 AHL career games and they need to find him a spot in the lineup every night.

This weekend should be the final time we see Kasperi Kapanen in a Marlies jersey.

  • leafdreamer

    I think Martin Komarov Kapanen has the potential to be the best 4th line in the league and I think that’s what we’ll see down the stretch.

    I still don’t understand, though, why Babs isn’t rotating his 3rd pairing and 4th lines. Wouldn’t it be great to have 2 fourth lines rotating like goalies in back-to back situations Martin/Komo/Kappy one night, then Leivo/Moore/Goat the next night.

    Same with 3rd pairings when Zaits and Rielly are back – Polak Dermott one night and Borgman Carrick another.

    It would keep players fresh and give them incentive to compete harder.

    • Bob Canuck

      There are at least 3 problems with this idea.

      First, who plays when there is not a back-to-back? There are 31 games remaining, of which only 10 are back-to-back.

      Second, the 3rd pair D and the 4th line play much less than the other skaters so I don’t think freshness is an issue for them.

      Third, and more importantly, teams are limited by a 23-man active roster. Your suggestion requires a 25-man active roster unless you want to constantly send two of Kapanen, Gauthier, Dermott, and Borgman down to the minors. How is that good for their development?

      • leafdreamer

        The rotation wouldn’t be restricted to back-to-backs only.

        It’s possible to be sending players up and down so that the 23 man roster limit is adhered to. That’s kind of what’s happening now, only without players actually getting icetime.

        The rotataion of the lines / d pairings would actually allow for them to be played more as they’d all be better rested.