When Kasperi Kapanen has been on the ice this preseason, things happen. The Pittsburgh Penguins winger has been the dynamic driver of the Penguins lineup and scored two more points on Tuesday night in the Penguins 5-4 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s just preseason, and Kapanen has feasted on the lesser lights of three NHL teams’ rosters. He should make life miserable for young or wannabe NHL’ers on down teams in Columbus, Buffalo, and Detroit. Notably, he’s the only Penguins player to play in every preseason game, and he’s followed through with standout games when few others would.
On Tuesday night in an otherwise sloppy game, Kapanen had a goal and an assist. He also had two takeaways.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan admittedly has been tough on Kapanen. Sullivan benched him against the Washington Capitals last season after his game got sloppy. It seems he’s never been far from Sullivan’s doghouse, but it’s not quite the doghouse as much as it is Sullivan’s desire for him to be in the penthouse.
“I’ve told him I think he has the potential to be an elite player in this league. I really believe that,” Sullivan said last week. “I’ve told him that on a number of occasions, and I’m going to do everything within my power to try to help him get there. And sometimes that means tough love for Kappy…But it’s not because we don’t think highly of him. It’s just the opposite.”
What makes Kapanen, 25, unique is not speed or skill, but those combined with an aggressive backcheck and some gritty puck pursuit. When Kapanen is playing well, his dogged backcheck creates turnovers while the opponents go the other way.
Pittsburgh Penguins Star?
Brief Penguins winger Marian Hossa was one of the best two-way wingers of the generation. He made defensive shutdowns seem effortless. Kapanen doesn’t have that stealth mode, but is an obvious rainmaker who steals pucks, wins 50/50 pucks, and…finishes plays.
When Kapanen is on the ice, things happen.
His stats before Pittsburgh were less than standout. Kapanen scored 13 goals in 69 games in 2019-20 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last season with the Penguins, he scored 11 goals and 30 points in 40 games; not exactly eye-popping but a big step forward.
“We think extremely…we think so highly of him, and I just think he has an elite game. I think there’s untapped potential,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s so much room for growth in this game. And there isn’t any aspect of the game that the Kappy can’t excel in.”
Sullivan has sent a message this preseason. He’s rolled Kapanen in every preseason game. While the regulars have played a couple of times, Kapanen has played all four, with prospects and without. Kapanen has been on the PK, atop PP1 with Kris Letang, on a line with top prospects, and across from Jason Zucker with Radim Zohorna in the middle.
And yet NaturalStatTrick reveals that Kapanen has been on the ice for more scoring chances against than for. More high danger chances against than for.
That’s part of the rub and perhaps a reason why Sullivan is pushing Kapanen. For all of the potential and all of the eye-catching good things, there are also too many moments on the other end of the rink where he isn’t noticeable.
A player who scores .75 points per game must be better in the defensive zone. A player who scores a point-per-game can get away with it. But Kapanen can be both disruptive defensively and explosive offensively –just like Hossa–, and that’s why Sullivan is pushing.
“He’s got dynamic, explosive speed. He can play a power game down low. He’s got good size. He’s strong. He can finish. He can make plays. So there’s really no aspect of the game that Kappy’s not capable of playing extremely well,” Sullivan’s praise hastened. “That’s how I look at it. And my hope is that I can push him to get to another level, and we’re going to push him hard because we think he’s that capable.”
Kapanen was brilliant when the Pittsburgh Penguins needed him last March. Before a collision with Jared Tinordi turned Evgeni Malkin’s knee to mashed potatoes, Kapanen and Malkin were a figurative buzzsaw. It may have been the biggest outburst of Kapanen’s career.
Kapanen scored 11 points (4-7-11) in 10 games from March 2 to March 18. Malkin suffered his injury on March 16.
Kapanen also finished the season on a roll with seven points (3-4-7) in his last seven games. But those streaks also mean he scored just 12 points in his other 23 games.
Sullivan wants the explosive player all of the time. At 25-years old, it’s probably time that Kapanen emerges.
Kasperi Kapanen has twice been the featured get in a trade for a top prize. Kapanen, the Pittsburgh Penguins 2014 first-round pick, was the centerpiece of the Penguins trade offering to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Phil Kessel on July 1, 2015. Kapanen was then the prized get for the Penguins 2020 first-round pick in August of 2020.
Kapanen was a hot commodity on the NHL trade market, but only the Penguins and former GM Jim Rutherford were willing to part with a mid-first-round pick.
His talent is unquestioned. His results could be, too.
“If we’re going to have success, we’re going to have to play a stingy game. And so it’s going to take a collective effort and attention to detail,” Sullivan said Tuesday night after the win. “With some of the game-breakers that aren’t in our lineup right now, we can’t look to those guys to be the difference. So we have to build a team game that’s going to give us the best chance to be successful.”
Kapanen is going to be a big part of that. Or, at least he could be.