Kasperi Kapanen is ripping apart the AHL, so keep him there

Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

When we did our prospect rankings in August, I was significantly less bearish about Kasperi Kapanen than the rest of the staff. More specifically, I had him in my Top Five when I made my first draft of the team, sat down, realized that the draft was largely intuition, and started looking at every prospect’s career trajectory.

It clicked to me at that point that as much as I loved watching Kapanen fly down the ice, and as much as I had heard the world be spoken of him before he came to the Leafs… he hadn’t done a heck of a bunch.

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10/11 14  KalPa U16 Jr.C SM-sarjaQ 0 0 0 0 N/A 0 N/A
  14  KalPa U16 Jr.C SM-sarja 26 14 8 22 N/A 10 N/A
11/12 15  KalPa U16 Jr.C SM-sarjaQ 8 12 4 16 N/A 4 N/A
  15  KalPa U16 Jr.C I-divisioona 2 1 1 2 N/A 10 N/A
  15  KalPa U18 Jr.B SM-sarja Q 2 0 0 0 N/A 2 N/A
  15  KalPa U18 Jr.B SM-sarja 25 13 11 24 N/A 6 N/A
  15  Finland U16 (all) International 16 11 6 17 N/A 20 11
12/13 15  KalPa U18 Jr.B SM-sarja 3 3 3 6 N/A 0 N/A
  16  KalPa U20 Jr.A SM-liiga 36 14 15 29 N/A 16 -3
  16  KalPa SM-Liiga 13 4 0 4 7.32 2 1
  16  Finland U17  WHC-17 5 3 6 9 N/A 4 N/A
  16  Finland U18 WJC-18 7 5 3 8 N/A 4 4
  16  Finland U18 (all) International 8 1 1 2 N/A 15 -1
13/14 16  KalPa U18 Jr.B SM-sarja 2 5 1 6 N/A 0 N/A
  17  KalPa SM-Liiga 47 7 7 14 7.08 10 -8
  17  Finland U18 WJC-18 5 1 1 2 N/A 0 -3
  17  Finland U18 (all) International 5 1 1 2 N/A 0 -3
  17  Finland U20 (all) International 5 1 0 1 N/A 0 N/A
14/15 18  KalPa  SM-Liiga 41 11 10 21 12.18 14 2
  18  WBS Penguins AHL 4 1 1 2 19.27 0 -1
  18  Finland U20 (all) International 10 3 2 5 N/A 0 -1
  18  Finland U20 WJC-20 5 1 0 1 9.02 0 -1
15/16 19  Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 9 0 0 0 0 2 -3
  19  Toronto Marlies AHL 44 9 16 25 21.89 8 7
  19  Finland U20 WJC-20 7 2 3 5 32.21 2 -2

Due to his Finnish heritage, the neighbouring beautiful souls at Elite Prospects are able to grab information from just about every game he’s played outside of backyard shinny since he was a young boy. What you notice is a common trend; Kapanen starts off hot in a league, gets called up to the next league to play against players older than him, and does pretty good but doesn’t quite destroy it.

It happens again, and again, and again, from bigger junior leagues into the pros, all the way to the Leafs organization. Kapanen’s career to date, in an odd way, was more of a concept and an idea than it was a series of results; he just simply never realy got the chance to compete against players of his own age and skill level, and that… actually kind of concerned me, given the sell of him being a player of offensive upside.

So I dropped him down my personal list by a bunch of spots. All the way down to 15th (we as a group still had him 5th), but with the asterisk of knowing that it could change really fast. The expectation was simple: Kasperi Kapanen had to dominate the American Hockey League this year. Well, the season is a month and a half in now, and sure enough…

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As it stands right now, Kapanen is seventh in the AHL in points, and tied for first in goals. He’s been used with a plethora of different linemates, he’s been active on the powerplay and the penalty kill, and visually speaking, he’s been just about the most dominant skater in the league. When he turns on the jets, there might not be a single opponent in the league who can keep up with him, and that makes him a threat on its own.

This has Leafs fans understandably excited, and speaking personally, it’s exactly what I wanted to see from the 20-year-old. Already, there are talks of calling him up this year to join the Leafs full time. But does that make sense?

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I feel that if you do that, you’re putting him in the same cycle he’s been in throughout his entire youth. Which, I suppose is fine if your goal is to get an NHL player as soon as possible, but if you’re looking to build a high-end player, throwing him back into a “starting from zero” situation at this stage would be counterintuitive.

Confidence is one of those ever-so-debated “intangibles” that I put a lot of stock into; perhaps coming from the influence that it seems to have over player selection in soccer, which I’ve been following more of at the higher levels in recent years. There’s a difference between an eye-roll inducing “everyone got energized by that hit so they won the game” confidence and the long-term value of having a high hockey self-esteem from an offensive standpoint.

Whether it’s the adrenaline-fuelled extra step that you’ll get when sight of a potential breakaway evokes “I’ve got this” rather than “oh, I guess I have to try”, or the fact that you don’t spend that extra half second debating what decision might work this time or the belief that that new move that you taught yourself in practice is worth trying on the defender because everything is going right, having a dynamic player who feels capable of being dynamic spills over to results. It’s showing in Kapanen’s results; he’s eclipsed his goal totals from last year in less than half the games, and he’s not doing it out of puck luck; he’s actually taking twice as many shots and has crossed his high in that regard too.

In calling him up, besides the fact that the Leafs would have to make a roster spot for him, you’re likely putting him on a low-minutes line and not relying on him to play special teams. He becomes your twelfth priority up front rather than your first, and he faces much tougher opponents. Why take away the ice time? Why take away the responsibility? Why take away the greater canvas to experiment with?

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Ultimately, it’s rapidly looking like I over-tempered my expectations on Kapanen this summer. I’m happy that’s the case; him being good with the Marlies is more important to the Leafs’ success than me looking pseudo-smart in a paragraph on the internet. If I were a betting person, I’d lean towards this trend continuing throughout the year, given that his results appear have to come from him literally doubling down on his opportunities rather than just getting lucky.

He seems healthier, quicker, and more confident than he’s been in a blue and white sweater (Suomi doesn’t count). It’s fantastic to see. But, especially with so many forwards already vying for spots on the Leafs, there’s no doubt in my mind that it makes more sense to let him try to push this current envelope even further instead of giving him yet another season of being thrown into the wolves mid-way.

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  • DukesRocks

    The scouting report on Kapanen in his draft year was that he wouldn’t engage on the physical side of the game. The mock drafts had Nylander, Ehlers and Kapanen at par with each other in regards to skill. He dropped due to lack of physicality in his game in my opinion. Even last year during his call up you could see the skill but also detect fear in his game. This year, playing for the Marlies, he seems more comfortable and confident. I agree, keep him on the Marlies for the rest of the season. If there were an injury to the Leafs, I don’t see Kapanen getting the call up over Leipsic anyway but that’s another topic.

    • Harte of a Lion

      It breaks my heart to see Willie doing great work in the O zone and then discovers he has no one to pass it to. There was one shift against Vancouver where Nylander recovered the puck on the wall, dekeing players between the half wall and the corner… kept the puck for 10-15 seconds before the play died. No one to pass it to. Kapanen and Bracco will make a dynamic duo next year with the Marlies. I don’t believe there is an issue to over ripening our remaining AHL/CHL and over seas prospects now.
      Any more news on Korshkov? Hopefully it’s not too serious and he takes this time to put on some weight and increase his upper body strength the way Brown did last year while he was out with a broken ankle

    • Marcel DePass

      I can’t see Martin playing above the 4th line, especially not dragging the elite skill down. Once Bozak is traded or injured, I think Leivo-Nylander-Kapanen line would be great. Leivo size and board play, while being able to complete creative Plays and receive Nylander’so rocket passes. I like Hyman, but his hockey IQ is low.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        I mentioned Martin – Nylander – Kapanen because Martin and Nylander are already on the fourth line. Kapanen and Martin can both play some PK. Nylander also moves up for the power play. Kapanen could do the same. It would means the Leafs would be rolling a high speed top 12. It would be very hard to defend against for most teams.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Kapanen has to put a full season together before he’s worth getting too excited about. It’s great to see he’s doing well but it could be a flash in the pan still.

  • LukeWarmWater

    To me Kapanen is added depth for this young organisation.
    which eventually could lead to a package deal for a good solid in his prime defencemen. Jay fans cringed today as the Red Sox just added all-star Chris Sales as they have built up their farm system with young talent and could make the deal. It is indeed a good position to be in especially with Bracco tearing up the O.H.L.