Mike Babcock nailed it when he said Kasperi Kapanen makes a difference when he’s on the ice.
Be it as a penalty killer or a quick and skilled fourth line regular that can provide a speedy component lower on the roster, Kapanen is morphing into a valued member of the parent club. The speed demon has been a welcome addition, and barring a paper transaction perhaps around the NHL Trade Deadline, he should finish the 2017-18 season as a full-time Maple Leaf.
The former Penguins draft pick was the centerpiece of the Phil Kessel trade to Pittsburgh, so the natural expectation was for him to be a significant part of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ future. I put together a piece at the time to explain how he was part of the recouping of assets for the viable return, not a true centerpiece to spike a trade.
And then he goes and pulls off this gorgeous goal, putting his speed and skill on full display.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) February 8, 2018
Kapanen is skilled and speedy, with some highlight reel moments in his young developmental and professional career: As a member of the Finland World Junior Championships team, he scored a stunning gold medal game winner. In the 2017 playoffs, he scored a beautiful overtime winner as part of a two-goal game in Game 2 against Washington.
Though he possesses skilled hands and quick feet, I find he lacks some creativity and imagination. Most of his goals (both individual and where he played a part in them) are the result of workmanlike efforts. He was thought to be more of an outside presence, but he’s starting to show more inside-the-dots play and net drive, exploiting lightning quick outside speed to cut in for a scoring chance.
I’ve been vocal about his penchant to skate himself into dead ends as he’s repeated this type of play regularly, offering a glimpse into a player who can move the puck up ice north-south but requires support to be successful.
Examples were plentiful, and while this is still prevalent in stretches, he’s become much more capable of getting pucks into dangerous areas of the ice. He also is getting to the net front without the puck.
Vintage skate into a dead end Kapanen. pic.twitter.com/Ng2Fr1yE7G
— Gus Katsaros? (@KatsHockey) April 7, 2017
Here’s another example.
Kapanen: straight dead end pic.twitter.com/ygHTiJJUHG
— Gus Katsaros? (@KatsHockey) September 27, 2016
And one last example of the pattern.
I’ll offer this & another vid for Kapanen. One is the biggest complaint from me, he dead ends himself constantly. This is just an example pic.twitter.com/xz0EHU3N4g
— Gus Katsaros? (@KatsHockey) September 26, 2016
I expect more noise surrounding moving Kapanen up in the lineup with each and every highlight reel item. I’ve even seen suggestions that he can replace an important piece like James van Riemsdyk. There is probably a bit more required in terms of development to be that kind of player. He’s an NHLer without a doubt, though, and a vital lower roster component that can be dangerous for the Leafs down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Boston versus Tampa Bay: Who should be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ preferred first-round opponent?
Ha, damn, not a team I’d wanna draw in the first rouwwwwww ohhhh man sorry TO https://t.co/I2XqmarBLH
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) February 8, 2018
Since Dec. 18, the Bruins are 17-1-3. pic.twitter.com/imzELqyqDI
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) February 8, 2018
I see what Justin is getting at here, but I’m not really convinced. Riding an elevated .941 save percentage, the Bruins have been killing it since the end of November. It’s an impressive regular season run, no doubt, especially when my expectations for Boston were lower in what I thought to be a transitionary period.
There’s been chatter on Twitter about the Boston Bruins’ record and midseason upsurge, with the sentiment that perhaps the Tampa Bay Lightning are a better matchup for Toronto than the hot Bruins.
I balk at that.
Two different items are relevant to a proposed playoff matchup, and for me, both don’t include a recent uptick in wins as the main element.
Regular season wins aren’t the same as a playoff wins. Other than home and homes, teams mostly play different rosters on different nights. Preparation and strategy are affected by the opponent – even if coaching staffs like to exude the sentiment of “playing our own game” and having the opponent conform.
In an ideal world, that’s a perfectly viable strategy. The NHL is not ideal, however, and tweaks/adjustments need to be made for each and every opponent. Rattling off a bunch of regular season wins takes this into consideration.
In the playoffs, that’s a secondary issue. Teams are focused on one opponent, one set of systems, and one specific roster.
The current roster — and health of that roster — are much more important than any regular season surge. Matching up against the Bruins, does that roster scream playoff juggernaut?
Every opponent generally is competitive and difficult to play against in a playoff round. I’ll laud the defensive efforts and results for Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, with David Pastrnak’s offensive ability as a heavy bonus; however, is their depth supposed to come through during the playoff grind in order to support that vaunted top line? There are good players there, but do recent results really justify the idea of playing the Tampa Bay Lightning as a better option?
Hardly. It’s a foolish sentiment to me. The Bolts are legit — they’re loaded up and down the roster and ready for the playoff grind. Boston falls off after their first line, with a decent blue line and excellent goaltending.
Let’s look at the Chicago Blackhawks from 2016-17 as an example. Currently struggling to make the playoffs, in 2016-17 they finished first in the division and ended up swept in the first round after scoring a measly three goals in the entire series – one each from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and a third by Dennis Rasmussen. Only four players fired double digit shots on goal.
In my preview for the 2016-17 season, I noted how if Chicago’s core falters, they will have trouble making the playoffs. The depth has to stand up and be accountable for a portion of the Blackhawks’ success. During the regular season, they did just that. In the playoffs, with the benefit of being able to zero in on the Chicago core and limit the depth, the Nashville Predators completely shut down the former Stanley Cup Champions.
In 2017-18, the three teams have posted the results below for expected goals for and against, and their actual goals for/against. I’ve added shooting percentage and save percentage for effect here.
Data is via Corsica.hockey and game situation is all at 5v5.
Toronto has scored 125 goals at 5v5, exceeding their expected goals by only a small margin. Both the Bolts and Bruins have eclipsed those marks by a much larger margin. Scoring can potentially be reduced if there’s any form of regression.
Similarly, the Leafs have bettered their expected goals against by posting the lowest of the three team’s save percentage. The tell here is just how many scoring opportunities they must be giving up to ring up the expected goals against of 117.27.
Boston has been stingy as far as goals against. The Bolts are seeing slightly better results overall, while both clubs are posting excellent save percentage numbers.
Video and system breaking is very sophisticated in the contemporary NHL. If I had to make a choice on who the Leafs are better off facing in Round 1, it would be an overwhelming “Boston” as my first choice.