Expectations were high for Kasperi Kapanen coming into 2019-2020, fresh off his first 20 goal season in the NHL and armed with a shiny new contract.
With Zach Hyman still on the shelf through training camp and the beginning of the season, Kapanen was given an opportunity to fill a top six role on his off wing. He struggled to produce early on with just 2 goals through his first 10 games and never looked comfortable on the left side, eventually returning to his natural wing on some variation of the Leafs third line.
Kapanen’s season reached a turning point in early February when he was made a healthy scratch for what the team said was a matter of “internal accountability.”
Reason for Kasperi Kapanen scratch: “internal accountability.”
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) February 2, 2020
Upon his return to the lineup, Kapanen brought a newfound tenacity to his game and looked like a player who had something to prove.
Despite an up and down season, both on and off the ice, he is still a very important part of this Leafs forward group as they get set to do battle with Columbus.
After scoring 20 goals in his first full season with the Leafs, Kapanen’s goal production dipped a bit in the first year of his 3 year, $9.6 million contract. He dropped from a rate of .26 goals per game to .19 goals per game in 2019-2020, a difference of approximately 6 goals over an 82 game season.
Always a threat on the penalty kill, he did manage to add two shorthanded goals bringing his career total to 5.
The Leafs fired a high volume of shots at the opposing net when Kapanen was on the ice, but he often struggled to generate high danger scoring chances individually.
His defensive numbers leave a lot to be desired as opposing teams often had no problem getting to scoring areas when he was on the ice at 5v5, though it’s unfair to pin that entirely on him.
Where Kapanen really shines is in the transition game. He’s among the fastest skaters in the league and he puts it to good use, ranking among the NHL’s best in zone entries. Often times he’s a one man breakout, skating the puck out of his end and through the middle on his way to an offensive zone entry.
If he can do a better job of turning those entries into more dangerous scoring opportunities, and sustaining offensive possession rather than settling for a curl back or a shot from the outside, his offensive numbers are sure to improve.
Kapanen can be such an electrifying player when he’s on his game but those instances didn’t come regularly enough over the course of this season. He never seemed to find his footing in a Leafs lineup that was in constant flux, but showed glimmers of being an effective third line energy player as the season wore on.
He’s at his best when he’s flying through the neutral zone with the puck or burning defenders out wide on his way to a clean look at the goaltender. When Kapanen gets a step on someone, there aren’t many guys in the league that are going to catch him.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 21, 2020
His ability to transition from defense to offense makes him a constant threat off the rush that opposing defencemen always have to be aware of. His speed forces defenders to back off when defending the rush and while it makes it difficult for him to take the puck to the net on his own, it often provides him the room to curl back and hit someone in space trailing the play.
Kerfoot scores from the doorstep. Great effort from Kapanen on the entry: pic.twitter.com/ClEtUhVdHS
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 23, 2020
So often it looks like Kapanen’s hands and brain can’t keep up to his feet but every once in a while, he can make a defender look silly with his puck skills too. He can be almost impossible to handle off of the rush when he sets up defenders with his speed before making a move with the puck.
This was pretty unreal from Kappy pic.twitter.com/o7w6NZrblt
— juno (@junotheleafs) January 5, 2020
After being late for practice and receiving a wake up call in the form of a healthy scratch, Kapanen came back looking like a different player. Scrappy Kappy, if you will.
There was a clear and concerted effort to be more engaged on the forecheck and play a more physical, agitating style of hockey. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this transformation began to take shape shortly after Kyle Clifford’s arrival in Toronto, either.
Not known for dropping the gloves, Kapanen initiated two heated scraps in late February and handled himself pretty well in both cases.
Kasperi Kapanen and Jared McCann drop the gloves pic.twitter.com/vZYWR6fYfu
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) February 21, 2020
Kapanen is more engaged all over the ice when he’s playing that aggressive style and if he can combine that with his natural physical gifts, the Leafs could have a real momentum shifting type of player moving forward.
If Kapanen can pick up where he left off before the season was shut down, he can be a difference maker in this series. His speed can cause all kinds of problems for opposing defencemen, both off the rush and on the forecheck.
The Blue Jackets are sure to bring a relentless forecheck against Toronto’s blue liners, and the Leafs will look for Kapanen to slow down Columbus’ mobile defencemen like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski in the same fashion. If he can commit to finishing his checks the way he did in the final weeks of the season, he could prove to be a disruptive force against the breakout.
Columbus does a good job of taking away space through the middle of the ice but Kapanen’s ability to weave through the neutral zone could open up some room as the Leafs look to break down a tough defensive team.
Kapanen has the ability to be an X-factor in this series if he can find a way to bring his best on a more consistent basis. His aggressiveness, as well as his skating and ability to transport the puck, make him a valuable weapon in this matchup against the Blue Jackets.
Kapanen didn’t have the season he or the team had hoped for, but this prolonged break could prove beneficial as he looks ahead to a fresh start this summer.
He has earned a reputation as a clutch player, scoring some big goals in big moments. There was the OT winner for Finland in the gold medal game at the World Juniors, his first career goal to tie it up late in the playoff clinching game against Pittsburgh in 2017, and of course:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 16, 2017
It looks as though Kapanen will begin the play-in round manning his familiar right wing position on a third line centered by Alex Kerfoot, and he will be a fixture on the penalty kill as well. Though he hasn’t had much success higher in the lineup to this point, he would be a prime candidate to move up in the case of an injury to someone in the top six.
Kasperi Kapanen has all the tools to be an impact performer in the playoffs and putting them to work more consistently could help ensure the Leafs are playing hockey deep into August.
(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com,
Contract information from puckpedia.com
Player Value Card from chartinghockey.ca,