As we began to go through the prospect rankings here at The Leafs Nation, divvying up which writer would cover which prospect, we came across a roadblock when it came to Kasperi Kapanen.
Most prospects on the site’s list were ranked differently by each writer. A few were somewhat unanimous, but only one – your boy Kapanen here – was universally ranked at the position they ultimately fell in. It was hard to decide who should write about him, since everyone seemed to pretty much be in agreement about where he belonged in the list. It didn’t seem fair to pass him off to any one writer – so the team gave him to me, the only writer who didn’t participate in the rankings process.
I guess laziness is good for something, after all.
Kapanen was brought on board in Toronto this summer, when the Leafs finally admitted defeat and dealt away Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh drafted Kapanen 22nd overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft – which, at the time, I considered a huge steal. I had initially projected the smart, mature Finnish forward to go somewhere between 8th and 13th overall; when the draft hit the 20th selection, I actually had to go back and check to make sure that I hadn’t somehow missed his name being called.
Pittsburgh is trying to win now, so they had to give up a bona fide prospect to make the Kessel trade happen – so Leafs fans can rest assure that the 19 year old skater (who comes from some kind of strong and versatile hockey bloodlines) was brought in to be a difference maker. He needs more time to develop, but there’s plenty to love about Kapanen’s game already – and with flashes of what made his father so well-respected in the NHL, it’s easy for me to say that I agree with the #3 ranking for Kasperi here in the prospect depth charts.
I did a lot of digging last season when I saw that Kasperi was draft eligible, and his game was incredibly mature for someone his age. Like his father, Kapanen is smart about how he reads the other players on the ice – and he’s good at paying attention to both his own teammates and to the opposition. He’s a very aware skater, something that makes him a useful asset as both a scorer and a playmaker in all situations.
This year, though, I didn’t get to catch as much of his game – so I talked to Finnish native Toni Hakulinen, a writer from Heinola who got a chance to watch Kapanen play for SM-liiga’s Kalpa Kuopio last year. Here’s a bit of what he told me from watching Kapanen last year:
“I like the overall skill level and how he plays such an unselfish game.
Yes, he wants to score goals but he’s doing so much more. He needs more strength and he needs to work on his consistency, but some time in the AHL should be his last step towards the NHL.”
As mentioned from his draft year, Hakulinen noticed that Kapanen has a mature game for his age – and he’s got a versatile, flexible skill set that he uses to best benefit his team. He’s not always focused on scoring if that’s not what the team needs at the moment – if they need a playmaker, he’ll set up his teammates, and if they need someone to face an oncoming rush, he’s there for that, as well.
It’s something that seems to be a Kapanen family characteristic, and playing with his dad likely helped with that – but for Toronto, it doesn’t matter why Kapanen plays such a great overall game. All that matters is that he does, because the Leafs sorely need that kind of player on the team.
“Sometimes, he might become lazy in the defensive end when things aren’t going his way. Scoring problems [for the team] may lead to lazy defending, and then everything falls apart.
Still, he’s a young kid who had to deal with huge pressure in Finland. The Finnish way of handling these high-profile prospects is a bit tough. They get an insane amount of ice time and then they might get tired [leading to problems].”
If there’s any warning sign the Leafs need to look for, this is clearly it. Pushing a prospect too hard – and leading to a burnout – is a risk that every team has to take when they’re pushing for a particular pace of development, but it’s clear that frustrations are Kapanen’s weak point. In Toronto, particularly if the media continues to put such a bright spotlight on players that make for good narratives, that risk increases ever so slightly.
Then again, there are worse problems for a prospect to have. Kapanen gets most easily frustrated when he tries to put too much pressure on himself to be the savior and do everything, which is hard for a team to fault him for. Making sure that he knows he’s doing well – and helping him develop with his team – should alleviate this problem, as will the maturity that simply comes as players get older.
Kapanen is a flexible all-around forward, so he could be projected to go anywhere in Toronto’s lineup down the line. A second or third line role may be the best fit, with a leadership role in all situations – it will all depend on where the other Leafs prospects are in their development when Kapanen is ready to hit the NHL and how he meshes with the rest of the team. He’s a good option to slot in where best needed, though, something that not every player can have said of them – so where he fits isn’t much of a concern now. It’s not where he needs to be put, it’s where he’ll be most needed (isn’t that refreshing?). For now, though, look to see him in the AHL.
I was extremely high on Kapanen at the 2014 Draft, and I was a little bitter that Pittsburgh selected the prospect when he fell so far. That being said, he’s a Leaf now, and that’s what matters – so I’m back to being excited about his future, and where the team will put him long-term.
(once again, HUGE thank-you to Toni for chatting with me about Kapanen. He tweets almost exclusively in Finnish, but go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter – he’s great for information about the SM-liiga if you’re looking for a firsthand account of a player you want to know more about.)
The Rankings So Far:
- #4 Scott Harrington
- #5 Jeremy Bracco
- #6 Travis Dermott
- #7 Andreas Johnson
- #8 Connor Brown
- #9 Brendan Leipsic
- #10 Stuart Percy
- #11 Nikita Korostelev
- #12 Freddie Gauthier
- #13 Nikita Soshnikov
- #14 Viktor Loov
- #15 Carter Verhaege
- #16 Martins Dzierkals
- #17 Rinat Valiev
- #18 Dmytro Timashov
- #19 Sam Carrick
- #20 Matt Finn