In an attempt to light a fire under his underperforming team, Mike Babcock may have accidentally struck gold.
With the Leafs down 2-0 early to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, Babcock knew it was time to get the big guns rolling. And boy, did he ever. After booting non-factor Tyler Ennis from Auston Matthews’ wing, it was up to another player to try and fill the void left by noted holdout William Nylander.
That player was Kasperi Kapanen, on the Leafs’ roster out of camp for the first time in his young career. Now, he may never look back.
The duo of Kapanen and Matthews was electric right out of the gate, with Kapanen’s speed starting the Leafs’ offensive onslaught with what would become the first of seven goals on the night for the Leafs. He would tally another assist in short order, and would follow up this impressive showing with a second consecutive two-point game in Dallas on Tuesday night.
The sample size is admittedly minuscule, but Kasperi Kapanen has looked every bit like an effective Top 6 player in the NHL this season. Delving a little deeper into his early success compared to last year yields similar conclusions:
Kasperi Kapanen (5v5)
What stands out most about Kapanen’s season thus far is how much more effectively he’s driven the play as compared to last season. In just 4 games, Kapanen has accumulated more assists than he put up in all 38 games last season. The difference here should be obvious; instead of wasting away on a fourth line with Leo Komarov and Dominic Moore, Kapanen has been entrusted to play up in the lineup with players who have challenged him to keep up, instead of dragging others along.
And he’s not just keeping up, either. Kapanen is already actively helping make Auston Matthews even more dangerous, by getting him the puck in ways only a skilled playmaker can.
Less than a minute later, Kapanen returns the favour and assists Matthews on the goal to tie it 2-2. pic.twitter.com/HgJYnxFjoc
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 7, 2018
Auston Matthews! Scores his 6th of the year with a great set up from Kapanen. 2-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/Y6GhrJLmXD
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 10, 2018
Their chemistry is unmistakable, but it would be doing Kapanen a disservice to simply chalk it up to chemistry. What’s remarkable about these two goals is not only how similar these split-second backhand feeds are, but how effortless Kapanen makes them look. What we’re seeing for the first time at the NHL level is just how well Kapanen sees the game, and how effective a playmaker he is when he’s given the opportunity to play with linemates who can finish.
Pessimists may dismiss Kapanen’s coming out party as a by-product of a lucky two-game stretch that has seen the Leafs notch a remarkable fourteen goals in six periods and 19 seconds worth of overtime. And true, there’s some value to that. Is Kapanen realistically going to continue to score two points per game? Not a chance in the world.
His recent success does, however, suggest that Kapanen’s value at the NHL level may be much more comparable to his production at the AHL level:
Kapanen – Leafs/Marlies Career Stats
In the American Hockey League, Kapanen has consistently produced more assists than goals, being a key playmaker who has averaged a fantastic .94 points per game in the AHL since the start of 2016-17. And while Kapanen’s goal output at the NHL level increased dramatically last season, his numbers in the assist column have long lagged behind. So much so, in fact, that Kapanen did not notch his first NHL assist until February 5, 2018.
The goal-scorer? None other than Auston Matthews.
The Road Ahead
Should Kapanen manage to maintain a position in the top six – and that’s still a big if on a team as deep at the Leafs, particularly once William Nylander returns – expect his campaign to continue to more closely mirror his AHL career than his NHL career to date. Even if does eventually slide back down the lineup after Nylander’s return, Kapanen is already making a name for himself as more than just a cog in the machine with occasional breakaway potential. He could soon find himself trusted to take control of Nazem Kadri’s struggling third line, and kick another of the Leafs’ talented centermen into high gear.