Leafs move Kasperi Kapanen, replenish organizational depth in deal with Penguins

The Toronto Maple Leafs have made their first signficant move of the offseason, trading forward Kasperi Kapanen back to the team they acquired him from five years prior – the Pittsburgh Penguins – as part of an extended seven-asset transaction.

Along with Kapanen, the Maple Leafs will send out Pontus Aberg and Jesper Lindgren to the Penguins, while receiving the 15th overall pick in the 2020 Entry Draft, prospect Filip Hallander, forward Evan Rodrigues, and veteran depth defenceman David Warsofsky.

Kapanen was originally acquired from Pittsburgh in the summer of 2015, as part of the trade that sent Phil Kessel on his back-to-back Stanley Cup journey. He spent the following two and a half seasons predominantly on the Toronto Marlies in an effort to round out his game, eventually reaching the point-per-game threshold and getting a more permanent opportunity with the big club.

Fans and media alike found reasons for optimism in the start of his 2018/19 season, where an 8 point in 5 game run in the midst of William Nylander’s contract dispute had many wondering if he could, in fact, replace the latter winger. Kapanen would fall off of that torrid pace, but still finished his first complete NHL season with 20 goals and 44 points, establishing himself as an NHL talent.

This season, Kapanen’s Age 23 year, did not produce the leap forward that many had hoped for. In 69 games, Kapanen posted 36 points, a slight regression from the previous year. More concerningly, his qualitative breakthroughs were non-existent; his blistering speed continued to dazzle, but decision making continued to be a problem for the Finnish forward, continuing to make bad off-puck lapses, poor shot and pass selections, and general disruptions of set plays.

As someone who has been back and forth on what Kapanen “is” throughout his development, that was a personal tipping point. The Maple Leafs are in the process of building an team that aims to play a high-pace, high-event, but largely controlled game. While Kapanen’s body meshes well with that – few can lay claim to a faster straight-line step – his struggles with remaining in-sync with his teammates has repeatedly slowed down or broken apart their efforts. Getting to the slot a second faster doesn’t matter if the next step, be it a pass or a shot, takes an extra two seconds to make, and that’s where he has continued to struggle over the years. In simpler terms, he’s more of an individual player than a team player, and so long as he’s not at the talent tier where he can break a game on his own terms like the “Big Four” can, that can be as detrimental as it is helpful.

That, combined with his $3.2 million cap hit over the next three years, made him an expendable piece for the team this offseason. While most prioritized moving the likes of his linemates Alexander Kerfoot or Andreas Johnsson instead, it was Kapanen to me that felt like the one to move first – his foot-speed is magnetic to the minds of traditionalists trying to build “fast” teams, allowing for an inflated perceived value that could be used to set the tone for further transactions down the road. This, combined with prior history, made calling Jim Rutherford and the Penguins an immediate fit.

In return, Toronto gets a bevvy of different assets that patch up several weak spots in the organization.

Most obvious to the average observer will likely be the first round pick. This pick is Pittsburgh’s own 1st round selection in the 2020 Entry Draft, which due the Penguins’ loss to Montreal in the Play-In round, was not sent to Minnesota as part of the Jason Zucker deal, as planned. They’ll instead get the 2021 first-rounder, while Toronto gets this years, which ranks 15th overall.

For the Leafs, this replaces the 13th overall pick that they’ll be sending to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of the deal they made to shed Patrick Marleau’s salary over the summer. This restores the ability to add another high-end prospect to the organization – something the Leafs would otherwise have been lacking before this trade given the likely NHL graduations of Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and/or Nick Robertson next season.

In fact, they may have arguably added two with this deal. Filip Hallander is more than just a body in this deal; the 20-year-old was selected 58th overall by the Penguins in 2018, with many draft experts ranking him above that mark. Developed in the Timra IK academy and pro systems, Hallander’s Swedish rights were moved to Lulea HF last season. In 72 SHL games to date, Hallander has put up 12 goals and 35 points. The only Under-21 player to put up a higher points-per-game in the SHL this season was New York Rangers prospect Nils Lundkvist. The year prior, he was 4th in U21 points-per-game, behind Emil Bemstrom (currently with Columbus), Sameuel Fagemo (2019 LA second rounder), and Dominik Bokk (2019 STL first rounder, traded to CAR). His production over the last two years tracks well with Canucks prospect Nils Hoglander, who I believe to be the better of the two, but is an example of the range we’re talking about here.

This is all to say that, in terms of what he’s done so far, Hallander looks poised to be a legitimate prospect if the organization can develop him well. Described as a hard-working two-way forward and just barely 20 years old, the Leafs will have lots of opportunity to groom the 6’1 forward into a potentially useful piece to the organization.

Capping off the trade are the assets on the fringes. Toronto gives up a little in Jesper Lindgren, who put up 9 points in 31 games with the Marlies this season and looked solid when paired with Teemu Kivihalme. Injuries were a problem for him, however, and at 23 the right-handed defenceman is running out of time to prove his NHL worth. Pontus Aberg was also included in the deal, and while his AHL time was impressive this year, motivation seemed to be a frequent concern. My understanding is that the contract he signed with Traktor of the KHL was not just a COVID precaution, and that the Leafs were ready to move on either way.

Incoming in terms of depth are Evan Rodrigues and David Warsofsky. Rodrigues is an Etobicoke native and has shown flashes of capability at the NHL level, putting up 25-30 point seasons with the Sabres in 2017/18 and 2018/19. Rodrigues is known as a high-energy player who statistically has had some success with shot suppression, though matchups and roles could play a factor there.

The concern with him in this trade would be his salary. Rodrigues is an upcoming restricted free agent and his current cap hit is $2,000,000; which would be reasonable if he could get back to his prime numbers, but is way out of range given his 10 points in 45 games this year.

A player like Rodrigues could be useful to Toronto’s rotation, as he has shown versatility and confidence in his own ability in the past. I can see the organization trying to pitch to him a short-term deal at under the price of the qualifying offer, allowing him a shot at redemption while close to home. I could also see his camp strongly considering it, as I can’t imagine the market for 10 point forwards who requested trades, got them, and then were traded again months later is particularly high, meaning that an offer in unrestricted free agency likely won’t reach the $2 million mark either. As far as value goes, I consider him to be a net-zero in this trade, as the team is essentially acquiring negotiating rights here and while he could stay, there’s no guarantee.

Last you have Warsofsky, who essentially replaces Lindgren on the Marlies blue line. Toronto likes to keep a few veterans on their AHL roster to keep an eye on the kids while helping them win hockey games at the same time, and in this regard, Warsofsky should be of good use. The 30-year-old hasn’t played an NHL game since 2016/17, but is typically good for about 0.5-0.7 points per game in the minors – something Toronto’s blue line will need with the loss of Lindgren, likely promotions of Sandin and Liljegren, and likely loss of Kevin Gravel.

All things considered, this is one of the best deals that the Leafs have made in the past several years. They sold high on a secondary asset who’s play style was more flash than substance, repaired their draft capital, restocked the upper end of their prospect system, and potentially added a useful veteran to their NHL and AHL depth charts, while freeing up several million dollars in cap space. When reports of Kapanen heading to Pittsburgh came out, panicked minds mostly expected Toronto to either step on a landmine (Jack Johnson), or galaxy brain their goaltending situation by landing Tristan Jarry or former Soo Greyhound Matt Murray. Instead, they picked up legitimately useful assets, and got a total worth significantly more than what even high-end goaltenders get on the market. Even if the Leafs were to immediately parlay this return into another deal and keep nothing that they acquired, they still have significantly more capital and flexibility this afternoon than they had this morning, and that in itself is a huge win.

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