For those of you who read my contributions to The Leafs Nation’s prospect rankings a summer ago, this position may come as a bit of a shock to you. After all, I went way, way off the board and put Kasperi Kapanen in my 15th seed, making him just barely a prospect of note while everybody else had him as a crucial piece to the rebuild.

My logic was pretty straightforward; he was a player perpetually rushed up the ranks, and never really showed himself to be capable of dominating a league for an extended period of time. He’d briefly impress, get called up, struggle for a while, and repeat. I wanted something more before I bought in.

Last year, Kapanen shut me up and gave me everything I was looking for. As such, he’s barreled his way up, nearly to the top of the totem pole.

Age 21 (July 23, 1996) Birthplace Kuopio, Finland
Pos Forward (RH) Drafted 2014 (Rd 1, Pick 22)
Vitals 6’0, 181lbs Acquired Via Trade (2015)

The thing that has always worried me about Kapanen is the burden of expectation. Because boy, did he start off with a lot of it. The Leafs recieved him as the biggest name coming back after trading Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and any time a teenager becomes the focus of a blockbuster deal, that comes with a degree of scrutiny.

He also has his father legacy to keep up with. While Sami wasn’t exactly a Hall-of-Famer, he was an established, well-liked, well-respected forward in this league; pressure enough on its own, but perhaps made extra annoying when the local media reminds you that the low point of his career, a concussion suffered (and heavily mocked) in the 2004 Playoffs, came against your new team.

In his shoes, those burdens would have definitely done a toll to me to start my career in Toronto. Some would argue they did, too; his AHL rookie season was good for his age but not particularly jaw-dropping (though scoring the Golden Goal at the World Juniors seemed to give him a confidence boost that carried into the second half) and he didn’t have a particularly inspiring first call-up with the Leafs either.

14  2010-11  KalPa U16  Jr. C SM-sarja 26 14 8 22 10
15  2011-12  KalPa U18  Jr. B SM-sarja 25 13 11 24 6
16  2012-13  KalPa U20  Jr. A SM-liiga 36 14 15 29 17.2 16 -3
16  KalPa  Liiga 13 4 0 4 15.1 2 1
17  2013-14  KalPa  Liiga 47 7 7 14 14.7 10 -8
18  2014-15  KalPa  Liiga 41 11 10 21 25.2 14 2
18  WB/S Penguins  AHL 4 1 1 2 19.3 0 -1
19  2015-16  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL 9 0 0 0 0 2 -3
19  Toronto Marlies  AHL 44 9 16 25 21.9 8 7
20  2016-17  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL 8 1 0 1 10.3 0 -2
20  Toronto Marlies  AHL 43 18 25 43 38.5 16 2

But it seems like a switch flipped for him with the Marlies this season. Whether it was a matter of opportunity, confidence, or learned habits, Kapanen emerged as a dominant forward, putting points on the board from seemingly any angle, any play situation, and with any linemates you could give him. The result was a point-per-game AHL season, something that has only been seen from a player of his age 19 times in the cap era, in almost every case leading to a regular, quality NHL player.

Kapanen’s season did have a couple of hiccups along the way. Most notable was a lower-body injury that pulled him out of the Marlies lineup for several weeks and initially had some fearing that it would undo any momentum he had built up for himself. He also suffered an upper-body injury early in the AHL playoffs, though he returned to the lineup in time for Toronto’s second-round series against Syracuse.

pGPSn pGPSs Exp. Success % Exp. P/82 Exp. Value
19 (26/31) 13 (T17/31) 73.9% (2/31) 63.5 (1/31) 46.9 (1/31)

The above numbers are products of the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), created by Canucks Army to project a prospect’s odds of becoming an NHL regular. For a run-down on what each of these stats mean, head back to the introduction.

Kapanen probably gained the most from his dominant AHL season of any prospect in the organization, as far as joining the historical ranks goes. Just about every player his age that scored at the rate he did went on to have good, if not flat-out excellent NHL careers; certainly, I wouldn’t be complaining if the Leafs were getting a Patrick Elias, a Petr Sykora, or even a winger variant of Nazem Kadri out of him.

The biggest concern to the above, if we’re being honest, is that all of these players were not just top prospects, but prospects on teams that had room for them. I think the Leafs will eventually find room for Kapanen, but I don’t know when, and that’s a little worrisome.

Kapanen’s strongest asset is his skating. He’s explosive in his stride and the final speed he reaches isn’t just great for his age, or for his level, but is among the fastest you’ll find in all of hockey. Most importantly, he’s able to keep playing in parallel with his movement, not losing stickhandling or shooting talent when in motion.

Something that was seen as a knock on Kapanen last year but has greatly improved since is his play away from the puck. He’s learned to be a bit more aggressive along the boards and leverage himself in puck battles, and in open ice, he’s learning that there’s a value to being the forward most likely to catch up to a counter attack, or to use his deking hands to strip the puck off of his opponents. This has made him into a more complete, more versatile player, and that was a big part of why he got his call-up last year.

The Upcoming Year

Mike Babcock stated at the beginning of training camp that the best players find their way onto the lineup, but that they don’t always start there right away. Besides Josh Leivo, there aren’t really other players in this organization that are bigger victims of that right now than Kapanen; he’s proven his worth in the AHL, he looked great despite fourth line usage during his call-up to the Leafs last year, and he’s looking great again in training camp.

But because there are so many available wingers to play on that bottom line, because Matt Martin’s job is teflon, and because Kapanen is exempt from waivers, he’s going to have to start the year again in the AHL. Naturally, if a forward or two suffers a substantial injury, I believe that he’ll be the first to get back into the Leafs lineup, and possibly force himself into never leaving again. But he’s stuck in the balance for now. How he treats that will be very interesting to observe; hopefully, he uses his time with the Marlies to further refine his game and dominate once more.

Long-Term Outlook

The fact that Kapanen has so many tools to his game that fit where the National Hockey League is going makes him a slam dunk to have some staying power. If for whatever reason the production never translates, the speed will always be useful. If the speed isn’t enough, he can kill penalties, and he can play along the boards. All of his traits make him a swiss army knife-type player that can thrive at just about any role on any line on your roster, and any team has use for that.

When Toronto acquired him, there were questions as to whether he could make up for the loss of their long-term star going the other way. In hindsight, that should never have been the comparable, and yet, he’s still on his way to becoming a core piece in his own right. Sure, it’s going to take more time than it did for the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, and he likely won’t get the same point totals or accolades, but he’ll matter in this league for years to come.

To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.

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