Maple Leafs prospects Kapanen and Leipsic taking AHL by storm

Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and the rest of the kids have lived up to the hype so far for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, resurrecting a fan base that has had very little to be excited about for the past decade. The NHL club, albeit still a losing one, has seen its youngest, most electric team take the ice at Air Canada Centre this year, but just down the Gardiner Expressway at Ricoh Coliseum, another success story has just begun.

Maple Leafs prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Brendan Leipsic each got a taste of the NHL last season, with the former failing to find his way onto the scoresheet in a nine-game trial run; the latter, meanwhile, tallied a goal and two assists in six games, but both spent the majority of the season with Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies.

In 2016-17, as about a third of the main roster is comprised of NHL rookies, Kapanen and Leipsic failed to make the final roster out of training camp with the expectation that they will both be back at some point during the season.

It wasn’t for lack of performance – they were simply edged out by the competition and management felt they would be best-suited in the minors for the start of the year.

“It’s obviously sad to get sent down like that again,” Kapanen told TSN earlier this season. “But it’s just more motivation for me. It was a good camp. I had a good time, I played well. I want to try everything I can to get up [to the NHL] one day.”

Through eight games, Kapanen has scored nine points (4G, 5A) — he’s currently fourth in the league in scoring and second on the Marlies behind Leipsic. A fellow winger, on a different line for scoring depth purposes, Leipsic leads all AHL scorers with 13 points (3G, 10A) in eight games.

Last year, when fellow rookie William Nylander earned his call-up, both Kapanen and Leipsic got their own trials at NHL competition, but they were quickly sent back down to the AHL (Nylander would later join them for the Marlies’ playoff run after the NHL season came to an end). Kapanen in particular struggled mightily, and he was even a healthy scratch for the first game of the Marlies’ postseason, but he’s turning things around very quickly this season.

“There’s two options,” Kapanen said. “You can quit and just not try and that’s when you’re not going to play for sure. The other is just, keep working hard. They played one game and put me in for the next one and after that I decided if I played well enough they’d have to keep me in there.”

Kapanen was named AHL Player of the Week after he scored five points in the first two games of the season with the Marlies this year, Leipsic leads the league, and a whole host of other Leafs prospects are making strides in their pursuit of NHL roster spots.

In fact, the Marlies are so stacked with NHL-ready (and borderline NHL-ready) prospects like Kapanen and Leipsic that the Maple Leafs roster is getting a bit too crowded. Veteran Brooks Laich didn’t even make the final cut, Milan Michalek was just sent down to the minors, and it looks like there may be more to follow soon, whether it be via a demotion or a trade.

If all goes right, Kapanen and Leipsic will both eventually become permanent top-six forwards for the Leafs. That won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t be long before they get another shot at securing NHL roster spots this season.

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