The Pittsburgh Penguins are last in the Metro Division. They’ve lost three straight games and three straight home games to boot. Jake Guentzel and Kasperi Kapanen can’t buy a goal, and now Kapanen is ticketed for the fourth line until the potentially dynamic winger finds some consistency in his game.
The Penguins lineup is upside down. There hasn’t been a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin in the lineup until Saturday when Crosby returned, and Jeff Carter missed a few games, too.
The lines helmed by third and fourth line centers Teddy Blueger and Brian Boyle have been consistently good. The top lines, not so much.
In tough times, better players are supposed to rise to the occasion. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ lonely eyes have turned to Kasperi Kapanen, who has begun the 2021-22 NHL season with a thud. And that begs the question:
What is Kasperi Kapanen?
Is he a role player with flashes of top-six talent? That’s the conclusion the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually chose after he dipped from 20 goals in 2018-19 to just 13 in 2019-20.
Or, is he a dynamic top-six winger with speed, power, defensive awareness, and 30-goal chops? That’s the version Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan chose to adopt this offseason despite Kapanen’s 11-goal, 30-point performance in 40 games last season.
And here we are. Eight games into the season, and Kapanen is both goalless and now demoted to the fourth line on Monday.
Such a demotion obviously won’t last long. Sullivan was lightning the kindling beneath Kapanen’s colorful suit pants to get more from his winger.
“He’s obviously an important player for us, and certainly he’s a guy that we have high expectations for. So we’ll continue to work with him through this process to try to help him capture his best game,” Sullivan said on Monday. “But you know, he’s just been a little bit inconsistent to this point. He’s had some games when he’s played well, and it just hasn’t gone in the net for him. And then he’s had others where he’s gotten away from it…”
Kapanen is now 25-years-old. It’s been a long time since he was the Penguins 2014 first-round pick.
The up-and-down and Duncan’s yo-yo of Kapanen’s career must end sooner than later. The showstopping player who burst into the Penguins lineup without so much as a training camp last season put up goals and opportunities despite playing on the Penguins’ fourth, then third line.
He swooned shortly after. Sullivan benched him. The pair had a few talks. Then Kapanen and Evgeni Malkin went on a blitzkrieg through NHL goalies for a few weeks until Malkin suffered a knee injury in mid-March.
Kapanen swooned again.
Then Kapanen finished the regular season with a flourish. He scored seven points in his final seven games as the Penguins charged to the East Division crown.
Kapanen was up and down in the playoffs. He scored three points (1-2-3) in six games but had just one assist in the final three games of the Round One six-game loss to the New York Islanders. Kapanen was also on the ice for more goals against.
“I think Kappy’s game has just been inconsistent. I think there have been some games where he’s played really well, and I think he had an impact. His speed is noticeable. He’s a threat when he’s on the ice. He makes good decisions with the puck, and he’s had other moments when he hasn’t (been noticeable). He’s gotten away from it…,” Sullivan said.
I don’t yet know what to make of Kasperi Kapanen, either. His wild suits and willingness to be “fashion-forward” with a purple T-shirt and some sort of purple fedora on locker clean-out day can be interpreted in different ways, but they’re part of his personality.
He also reminds me a great deal of Phil Kessel. In Toronto, Kapanen had to own up to being late for meetings and it cost him playing time.
It would be disappointing to see Kapanen head down the road of being uncoachable (we can smell our own), and it appears he heeds Sullivan’s teaching. The head coach spoke of Kapanen changing his diet and adopting a more professional lifestyle during training camp.
But the proof is on the ice. After this season, Kapanen will be an RFA and will likely want a healthy raise over his $3.2 million AAV, too.
Having fun and being a personality are things in rare supply these days. Every hockey team can benefit, but goals and preventing goals are more important. That’s what Kapanen must do consistently. He’s a power forward in waiting, but how much longer will the Pittsburgh Penguins have to wait?