Mike Sullivan and his staff have a lot to figure out when the Pittsburgh Penguins convene for training camp in September.
How do they work newcomers Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and Ty Smith into the defense pairings?
Do they tinker with the Jake-Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust line, perhaps bumping Rickard Rakell into Rust’s spot on that unit?
Can they assemble the spare parts brought in by Ron Hextall into an effective fourth line around Teddy Blueger?
But perhaps the most important — or most intriguing, at least — might be what they do to coax the best out of Kasperi Kapanen and, in the process, validate management’s decision a few days ago to re-sign him from two seasons.
Kapanen had more of an impact on the Penguins’ salary-cap situation than he did on the ice in 2021-22, when he produced just 11 goals and 21 assists in 79 games — and rarely looked good doing it.
Kapanen’s productivity during the coming season could be a key variable for the Penguins. If he can reestablish his credentials as a top-six forward and generate as many goals as his talent suggests he should, Kapanen could make a difference for his team again.
This time, in a positive way.
Sullivan, quite understandably, seemed to lose confidence in Kapanen as last season unfolded, moving him up and down the lineup, but never finding a place where he was a good, effective fit.
Where Sullivan plans to deploy Kapanen during camp isn’t known, although on the third line with Jeff Carter seems the most likely option. He also figures to reprise his role on the No. 2 power play.
But perhaps — counter-intuitive as this might sound — it is time to expand Kapanen’s duties, to find out if taking on extra responsibilities might help to get him more focused, invested and involved in all facets of the game.
Let him kill penalties.
Kapanen has had cursory auditions for that work in the past, but it’s time to give him a full-fledged one.
The Pittsburgh Penguins need to find a penalty-killer to fill the spot previously held by Brian Boyle (and never really have plugged the hole created by Zach Aston-Reese’s departure); no one should expect Kapanen to take to the job like Patrice Bergeron or Jari Kurri, but it’s a worthwhile experiment.
If he wouldn’t embrace the challenge and opportunity of working on the shorthanded unit, it would be a pretty good indication of the level of commitment he’ll bring to the rest of his game.
Kapanen could, in theory, be a good penalty-killer, in part because his speed and skill could be a deterrent, causing opponents to re-think the wisdom of, say, making a cross-ice pass near the blue line because of the possibility Kapanen could intercept it and have a breakaway.
Of course, there’s more to the job than putting the opposing power play on edge.
Killing penalties is gritty, difficult — and often painful — work
A willingness to sacrifice one’s body to prevent pucks from getting to the net is an integral part of the job description.
Kapanen is far from an accomplished shot-blocker — he averaged 0.99 per 60 minutes played last season, the lowest figure for any of the 27 Pittsburgh Penguins players who appeared in five or more games — and doing it well is a skill that must be refined.
While fearlessness is a good foundation, timing and the ability to read and immediately assess how a play could develop are critical, too.
Kapanen’s learning curve would be steep; he logged — not averaged — eight seconds of shorthanded work in 79 games during 2021-22 after averaging three seconds per game the previous season.
Bob Gainey, he’s not.
But Kapanen doesn’t have to be Gainey. He just has to be the guy Kasperi Kapanen is capable of being, and killing penalties might be one way to help him get there.
And if it wouldn’t work out? Well, Kapanen wouldn’t be the first player to have the talent, but not the intangibles, needed to have a long, productive career in the NHL.