By most accounts, the Toronto Maple Leafs are ahead of schedule in their rebuild towards relevancy. In fact, the 2016-17 club was arguably the most relevant Maple Leafs team of the salary cap era.
Buoyed forth by an enviable group of young players and one of the best head coaches in the NHL in Mike Babcock, Toronto made the playoffs for just the second time since 2005 last year. One of the major moves the Maple Leafs made during their tougher rebuild years was to trade Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins in July of 2015.
The team acquired a bundle of assets in return for Kessel, including Kasperi Kapanen. And, as fate would have it, the 22nd-overall pick in the 2014 draft appears to be NHL-ready just as the Maple Leafs look to take the next step in their evolution. He’s skated in 17 regular season games — nine in 2015-16 and eight last season — and only has one goal, but that isn’t representative of what the forward could bring to the ice in Toronto.
Perhaps the two goals across six playoff games against the Washington Capitals is a better indicator of what Kapanen is capable of, but that bit of recency bias makes it tough to figure out just where he fits into Toronto’s plans for 2017-18.
He’s undoubtedly ready to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL. Kapanen generated shots at a high level for the Toronto Marlies and was one of the American League’s better point producers with 43 points in 43 games. There’s more to a player than his ability to score points, but that’s a good place to start when trying to figure out where the 21-year-old stands on the depth chart.
It’s also worth noting that Kapanen played on both the penalty kill and power play for the Marlies and was effective in those roles despite dealing with a lower-body injury for a majority of the year. Once he made the jump to the NHL at the end of last season, it was evident that he was more comfortable that he had been in 2015-16.
The bit of gusto that made scouts less worried about his lack of size during his draft year started to show, and Kapanen proved that he was all too happy to battle in the corners for loose pucks. Opposing players aren’t going to get away with face washes and the like in between whistles, either.
There are a time and a place for everything, but Kapanen didn’t look like a pushover once he landed on Toronto’s fourth line at the end of the campaign. His linemates weren’t anything to write home about — Brian Boyle and Matt Martin aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess — but the right wing still made the most of his opportunity.
There’s a real log jam on the right side in Toronto, though, and if Kapanen wants to crack the top-nine this season, he’ll need to beat out Mitch Marner, William Nylander or Connor Brown for playing time. What’s more, he’ll need to fight off upstarts like Nikita Soshnikov for a role in the bottom-six, if a spot on one of the top three lines isn’t available.
To his credit, Kapanen knows that winning a full-time spot on the Maple Leafs won’t be easy. He spoke to Lance Hornby of the National Post about that recently during offseason workouts, and had this to say:
“It’s always tough (to win a spot), especially now that we have a good group of guys. It’s going to be a challenge. (Workouts) have been high tempo and some guys can really play.”
Kapanen is no slouch either, however. Some pundits may be wary of sticking him on the fourth line with the Maple Leafs instead of getting him major playing time with the Marlies, but he’s capable of providing the kind of scoring depth that helps teams push for Stanley Cups.
Most high-end NHL teams — the real, true contenders — have top-nine forwards stashed on their fourth lines, and they are able to chip in goals and on special teams. Kapanen’s ability to kill penalties could prove invaluable as he pushes to make the opening-night roster, as there’s little doubt that he has the offensive pop needed to make an impact at the highest level.
Confidence and comfort can go a long way for young players looking to permanently jump to the NHL, and Kapanen has more of those things than he did two years ago. He’s got a few playoff games under his belt and was one of Toronto’s best forwards against Washington.
While he won’t be able to ride on the back of those memories for long, it still appears that a spot on the Maple Leafs is Kapanen’s to lose. Anything can happen during training camp, and he’ll need to stay healthy, but Toronto should be getting yet another high-octane forward to work with come October.