A month ago, the decision likely would have been easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement requires them to extend a qualifying offer of $840,000 to Kasperi Kapanen, who is about to become a restricted free agent, if they want to retain his rights.
Had that figure been much higher — it is based on 105 percent of his 2021-22 base salary of $800,000, not his salary-cap hit of $3.2 million — as the regular season was winding down, the closest thing to a tough call in that regard for Ron Hextall would have been determining whether to inform Kapanen by phone or by email that his second stint with the Penguins was over.
But during the waning days of April and the Penguins’ cursory visit to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Kapanen began to look like, well, Kasperi Kapanen is supposed to.
He skated hard pretty much every time he went over the boards, got open for shots and took them, played the body frequently and vigorously.
His efforts yielded only a pair of assists in seven games against the New York Rangers, but at the very least, he probably gave the front office cause to rethink whether he should be part of the future here.
Was his late-season resurgence evidence of what he could contribute on a regular basis in coming years, or simply an aberration that shouldn’t obscure that the only thing Kapanen should be counted on to do consistently well is underachieve?
Put that on the long list of questions that Hextall and his staff must deal with in the weeks ahead.
Kasperi Kapanen, Hello?
One thing seems certain: Kapanen has arbitration rights, and if he threatens to request a hearing to get a bump in pay, the Penguins should cut off talks immediately. Kapanen relinquished any leverage he would have had in contract talks with his performance this season.
There were far too many instances when he seemed to swap his No. 42 sweater for an invisibility cloak. For long stretches, the only time he got noticed was when he was carrying the puck across the opponent’s blue line, then abruptly curling toward the boards rather than driving to the net.
That he finished the season with just 11 goals and 21 assists in 79 games was not an indication of bad luck; it was a reflection of bad play.
“I had really good games this year,” Kapanen said a few days ago. “And I had really bad games.”
He didn’t mention that the latter far outnumbered the former.
Going into the season, Kapanen was projected to be a top-six winger — it did not seem unreasonable to pencil him in for at least 25 goals — but as the winter moved along, he was used up and down the lineup.
Now, usually when a guy does that, it’s testimony to his versatility and ability to adapt to a variety of roles. For Kapanen, it’s because Mike Sullivan couldn’t find a spot where he could contribute with any semblance of regularity.
His game never added up to anything close to the sum of its fairly impressive parts, and his confidence sank in tandem with his offensive output.
Kapanen acknowledged that it is imperative for him to regain “my swagger that I used to have. I don’t think it was there this year, and I think it showed.”
There is an obvious risk in allowing a 25-year-old with real talent to leave without getting something in return, especially for a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose pool of high-end young players is more like a puddle.
Of course, there also is one for a team for which every nickel of cap space is precious in giving a seven-figure salary to a guy who might repay that investment with six months of frustration.
Kapanen is adamant that he wants to stay with the Penguins — “I love being here,” he said. “I’ve never felt better on any team in my life” — and they’ll have a clear need for top-six forwards if the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell depart via free agency.
How about this for a solution: Hextall should offer Kapanen a contract. For one year. At a reduced salary.
If Kapanen proves his worth, reward him in 2023. If he doesn’t, let him look elsewhere for his next contract.
His search then would figure to be a lot more difficult than the one the Penguins would face in trying to fill the tiny void Kapanen’s departure would create if he flops for another season.