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.
|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||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||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|
|18||Finland U20 (all)||International||10||3||2||5||N/A||0||-1|
|15/16||19||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||9||0||0||0||0||2||-3|
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…
Kasperi Kapanen’s confidence level is sky-high right now, as shown with this goal. Marlies tie the game at 1-1, Valiev with the assist. pic.twitter.com/zLpjX2avzH
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 6, 2016
The Marlies went on another powerplay and converted just four seconds in. 3-1 on Kasperi Kapanen’s Ovechkin-esque second of the game. pic.twitter.com/eduyYkA6mF
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 6, 2016
Here’s Kasperi Kapanen putting in work on the PK. Takeaway, turns on the jets, creates a chance, kills some time. Good stuff from him. pic.twitter.com/pSZIX8ELxJ
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 29, 2016
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?
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?
Doesn’t lead to anything, but Kasperi Kapanen is already looking pretty confident out there early in this first period. pic.twitter.com/6PwUDMWbMK
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 21, 2016
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.