It surely wasn’t supposed to be this way. The pressure, never-ending upheaval of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, is a roller coaster ride for a young player that can feel like riding the Thunderbolt after a few too many beers. After a few years in the Toronto fishbowl, Kasperi Kapanen is in his second year with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was primed for his career year this year. At 25-years-old, it was now. He had the full support and backing of head coach Mike Sullivan. He had the motivation, the training, the prayers, and the vitamins to make it happen.
And then…it fizzled almost as soon as the first regular-season puck dropped.
Kasperi Kapanen was dominant in training camp and preseason. He changed his diet flew, dedicated himself to the offseason challenge by Sullivan. He flew past the competition, but that player who dominated preseason games became the invisible Kapanen in the real games. The goalless streaks piled up, and the questions began.
“Terrible. Thanks,” is how Kapanen summed up his season-to-date last week. He’s not entirely wrong.
Kapanen’s numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re not befitting a top-six winger on a talent team, either.
In 29 games, Kapanen has 16 points (7-9-16), which is on-pace for around 19 goals and 25 assists. He achieved most of those numbers on thPenguins’ns second line with Jeff Carter and Jason Zucker, a scoring role. Notching 44 points with 19 or 20 goals would be a victory for some players, but not in fits and starts and the inconsistency that gripped Kapanen’s game.
There have been high points, such as his Nov. 6 hat trick against the Minnesota Wild, but those other moments offset the good.
No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but the Penguins haven’t cast him aside or banished him to the third or fourth line, as former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock did. And as current Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe did.
Sullivan has sent a couple of few messages this season. There was a third period benching and a couple of limited ice engagements when things weren’t going well. However, injuries and hope have Kapanen recently put Kapanen the top line with Sidney Crosby, the equivalent of finding a golden wrapper in your Wonka Bar.
Kapanen has two goals in his last four games and had a couple of good looks on Friday night, only to hit the same Malcolm Subban wall that others hit, too.
“So his finishing ability, I think, is evident. You know, his speed is evident at times,” head coach Mike Sullivan said this week. “I think it could be even more evident, more consistently, and that’s something that Kappy and I have talked about.”
The question–where did Kapanen go–has been asked too often this season. A player with his skills and pedigree should be a prominent player. As the team descended into a laissez-faire free skate for the second half of the game, a player like Kapanen can change the momentum.
Playing beside Crosby is a golden ticket for some but a curse for others. The game is fast, and Crosby plays it faster. The game is physical, and Crosby plays in the most physical areas. To be successful beside him, you have to play in those areas and know how to get open adjacent to those areas.
“I think Kappy is trying to work at his down-low game because that’s the game that’s his line tends to thrive in, and that’s the game they want to play,” Sullivan explained. “And we’ve been trying to encourage Kappy to get more engaged in those aspects of the game, which means you’ve got a stop on pucks, and you’ve got to stay close when there are 50/50 puck battles so that we have some numerical superiority around the puck, or at least we don’t get outnumbered around the puck.”
And there is the gatekeeper’s explanation.
Kapanen may get his buddy, Evgeni Malkin back, soon. Kapanen and Malkin went on a tear through the NHL in the middle of last season. The duo filled the net, and the Penguins could fly. From Feb. 23 through Malkin’s knee injury on March 16, Kapanen had 14 points (5-9-14) in 14 games.
But it’s only 16 points in 29 games this season.
Those numbers would be great for a player that shows up every night, every shift, and helps the team in numerous other ways. Kasperi Kapanen has that ability, too. In the 3-2 OT win over Buffalo on Friday night, Kapanen had several early scoring chances, played well defensively, but disappeared with numerous other teammates as the game progressed.
“Those are just habitual things that take time to develop,” Sullivan concluded. “But I know he’s working at it, and that’s the area of the game where I think he can just bring a little bit more consistency.”