BOSTON — Pittsburgh Penguins winger Kasperi Kapanen let it rip during and after practice at Fenway Park on Sunday.
If you’re a fan of athletes being honest, you may like his comments. If you’re part of the social media contingent that has poked Kapanen, you may have a different take.
The last five weeks have seen wild swings for Kapanen and his role with the team. From the press box to a hat trick to being essentially benched when coach Mike Sullivan shortened the bench to being featured in the same situation.
“A month ago, you know, I was in the gym while the game was going on, not playing,” said Kapanen. “Whenever you’re playing, you feel better. I think 10 points in 12 games, with my role right now, I guess it’s trending in the right direction.”
It was not an unprecedented move, and it was not surprising when coach Mike Sullivan made Kapanen a healthy scratch. For two weeks in November and the weeks preceding, it looked and felt like rock bottom for a player to whom much was given and expected.
When he exited the lineup after the Nov. 12 OT loss to the Montreal Canadiens, he had just five points, including a lonely one goal.
When he returned, Gorilla Monsoon would have called him a house of fire. Kapanen scored five points in two games, including a hat trick on Dec. 3 against the St. Louis Blues in his third game.
The hatty followed a two-point game (1-1-2) against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Kapanen had 10 points in a 12-game stretch from Dec. 1 through Dec. 28.
That’s the statistically good news.
The bad news is that Kapanen doesn’t seem to be making a dent in the Penguins’ bottom-six troubles. His ice time has fluctuated from seven to 13 minutes per game and varies based on special teams minutes and performance from game to game.
In fairness, a third line is often tasked with harder minutes. Both Kapanen and Jeff Carter noted the defensive role and preponderance of defensive zone starts.
“I think (lack of scoring chances) was just us not kind of holding onto pucks and spending enough time in the offensive zone,” said Kapanen. “Even though we do take a lot of d-zone draws and are on the defensive side right off the bat.”
The Penguins’ bottom six lines have been a puck-possession blackhole for weeks. When Kapanen is on the ice (primarily with Carter), the Penguins have just 40% of the shot attempts, 36% of the scoring chances, and only 29% of the high-danger shots.
“The way we throw people out there, we get a lot of D-zone draws,” Carter said. “So we’ve got to win our draws in the D-zone. One, to get out and then just try and sustain some pressure. We’re getting down there and getting the chances, but we’re not getting pucks back (for second chances).”
Despite the statistical lopside, Kapanen has been on the ice for MORE even-strength goals (7) than allowed (6).
Glass half full: He has four power-play points (2-2-4) in 13 December games.
Glass half empty: That means 40% of his points in December are on the man-advantage.
Stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com
Kasperi Kapanen has played on both the third line with Jeff Carter and on the fourth line with Teddy Blueger. Despite a history of penalty killing, Kapanen has remained on the Penguins’ second power-play unit but has not killed penalties.
“He’s been playing well for us since he came back in the lineup,” Carter said. “Kappy is Kappy. He’s a happy guy. He works hard. And hockey is a weird game. When things aren’t going your way, you’ve got to stick with it, and eventually, they will come. So I’m glad for him.”
The even-strength eye tests for Kapanen are mixed. In smaller bursts, Kapanen has shown energy and speed, but those moments have stood out because, for other portions of the game, he has not.
This is also where the story takes a turn.
Kasperi Kapanen Locker Room
After practice Sunday at Fenway Park, one day before the Pittsburgh Penguins participated in the 2023 Winter Classic, PHN chatted with Kapanen. He shot straight from the hip about being scratched and the social media barrage, which has highlighted the negative stats above.
As some know, Kapanen does not have a burner account.
If he has something to say, there won’t be any anonymous comments. He uses his own account and will say it directly.
PHN asked what the third line or even fourth wants to do better to increase the scoring chances.
“That’s just the way hockey is sometimes,” Kapanen began before pausing and shifting course. “I mean, people make sure to let me know our line has been terrible and scoring chances-against — and that’s just people social media, that’s what they write, and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
“But obviously, numbers don’t lie, I guess, in a way. I think (the lack of chances) was us not holding onto pucks and spending enough time in the offensive zone, even though we do take a lot of d-zone draws and are on the defensive side right off the bat. But I think, you know, lately, it’s been better.”