12 games into the Toronto Marlies season, Kasperi Kapanen has a team-leading seven goals to his name and sits second in points behind Brendan Leipsic. It’s statistics like these, allied with some visually impressive performances, that have some fans clamouring for a call-up sometime soon for the 20-year-old winger.
It has indeed been a big step forward for Kapanen after a rookie year of highs, lows and inconsistent play overall.
Kapanen managed just two points, both goals, in his opening seven games of 2015-16 and was lucky to escape severe injury after Tyler Bertuzzi caught him with a number of punches before slew-footing and body slamming him.
Two long scoring stretches bookended a memorable World Juniors, with the host Finland claiming the gold medal on Kapanen’s game-winning overtime goal. While it looked like a turning point when he returned from the tournament (after a break to celebrate with friends and family back home) high in confidence, his rollercoaster ride continued for the rest of the campaign.
The latter part of the season proved a struggle. Two separate stints with the Leafs, of four and five games, saw him show the odd flash but he appeared out of his depth on occasion (he also had to frequently field ridiculous questions about the Phil Kessel trade). Pointless during his first go-around in the NHL, Kapanen seemed to take the demotion to heart, failing to register on the scoresheet in his last six regular season AHL games. He was also scratched for a game in the opening playoff series against Bridgeport.
The former 22nd overall selection in 2014 responded by stepping to the fore in the Albany series, especially when the chips were down, netting the vital tying goal and providing another for Connor Carrick during a memorable Game 7 win.
It was a disappointing finish to the season, though, as the Hershey series saw Kapanen record one assist in the five-game elimination.
Come the Fall, Kapanen was always going to be a long-shot to make the Leafs through camp. The focus was more on making sure he hit the ground running with the Marlies heading into his second full professional season. With no William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Mark Arcobello or Zach Hyman on the roster, Kapanen was presented with the opportunity to make an impact as one of the offensive leaders of the 2016-17 Marlies.
Looking at numbers alone, it’s not difficult to notice a vast improvement already.
- Kapanen has scored a third of last season’s even strength points total and has already equalled his five goals scored during 5v5 play.
- On the man advantage, Kapanen has already tied last year’s points tally of seven and has been directly involved in half of the Marlies powerplay goals. He’s the integral reason why Toronto’s powerplay looks vastly improved so far in 2016-17.
- Kapanen has certainly been more willing to shoot, upping his 2015-16 average of 1.47 shots per game to 3.16 so far this season. That’s notwithstanding the fact he’s hit the iron a handful of times along with some near misses.
While it’s a small sample size, it’s not as if the winger has been taking low-percentage shots on net. That’s somewhat borne out by the positioning and type of goals Kapanen has scored.
A basic breakdown of each marker this season:
- Even Strength – Drove down the left wing with speed before cutting to the net, driving across the crease and scoring from in tight.
- Even Strength – A tap-in from the blue paint after receiving a feed from below the goal line.
- Even Strength – A rush down the right side followed by a wrist shot around the right face-off dot that found the far top corner.
- Even Strength – A one-time finish from the hashmarks on a cross-crease feed.
- Powerplay – A slap shot one-timer from one knee when positioned at the bottom of the left circle.
- Even Strength – On a coast-to-coast rush, deked through two defenseman in front of goal before scoring from the slot.
- Powerplay – A one-timer slapshot taken from a few feet above the left circle.
The noticeable trait about his goals this season is the variety. Kapanen has been far from a one-trick pony, making him a tough opponent to play against. Goaltenders are never quite sure what to expect.
What cannot be found on the stats page is Kapanen’s play on the penalty kill. While the Marlies PK has struggled early in the season, the Finnish forward has certainly been one of Toronto’s better player in that regard. Utilising his speed to close down opponents and obstruct passing lanes, he’s also single-handedly turned defense into offense on numerous occasions, wasting precious seconds in the opponent’s zone. With a little more luck, he would have at least two shorthanded goals to his name and assisted on as many.
There is no rush
The lack of patience in wanting to put Kapanen back in the show so quickly is ill-advised when you consider the following:
- There currently isn’t a spot open for him to slot into a top-nine role. It would be a pointless exercise to have him playing in a role teamed with players who couldn’t benefit from his skill-set or vice versa.
- With 60 regular season AHL games to his name, it’s only in his last 12 games that Kapanen has begun to consistently show the first real signs of domination at the AHL level.
- Kapanen remains one of the younger prospects in the organization at the age of 20 with a July birth date.
A full 2016-17 season in the American Hockey League, if that’s how it plays out, should not be looked at as a punishment or treated with disdain by the fan base. There is still a ridiculous amount of time left for Kasperi Kapanen to make it to the NHL and it doesn’t even have to be this season.
As has been mentioned by Leafs management on numerous occasions, patient player development is key, and they have no intention of yo-yo’ing players between levels on a regular basis. Head coach Mike Babcock has reiterated several times that when young players are called up, the Leafs want them up for good.
With confidence such a fickle beast for Kapanen, at this juncture it is the right call to allow him to build upon his strong start to his AHL campaign and prove he can achieve the consistency to his performance level that was lacking during his rookie year.