How do you properly assess the skill of a 20-year-old Finnish national hero whose face has already graced a postage stamp?
I think you post this sweet bit of history:
And this sign of NHL-level promise:
And you call it a day.
Yep, this looks about right.
Okay we won't call it a day quite yet. How's Kapanen going to do this upcoming season?
Funny thing about Kapanen at the World Junior Championship: the first few articles about him mention the fact that he was not scoring as much as Team Finland had hoped. He scored 2G/3A in all seven games of the tournament -- but because one of those two goals was so spectacular, this perceived underperformance was erased in hindsight.
One early article about the tournament had this wonderful line: "Kapanen, expected to lead the team in scoring, has yet to register a point." What Kapanen did do, however, was play a defensively responsible game well enough that coach Jukka Jalonen kept his confidence in him. The Toronto Star reported:
"The points haven’t been there, but I’ve still been playing well, skating, and creating chances," said Kapanen. "Hit a couple of posts. Just doing all the other stuff that I can do if the goals aren’t going in. We still got a lot of games left, so I’m not panicking."
Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen said his young team might be feeling the pressure of expectations — Finland won gold two years ago in Sweden — with the home crowd.
"It’s great to play in front of 13,000 people," said Jalonen. "For most of our guys, it’s the first time. There’s a little bit more pressure playing on home ice, but we try to use it to our advantage, focus on the moment, enjoy the moment.
"But we have young guys like everybody and sometimes it’s difficult and the players sometimes get little bit nervous and they don’t trust themselves enough."
Jalonen has no problem with how Kapanen is performing because of his strong two-way game.
Defensive responsibility eventually allowed Kapanen to have the puck at just the right moment to score the game-winning goal against Russia in overtime. Here, at least, Kapanen was able to re-write history. It remains to be seen whether Kapanen can rewrite the other history hovering over his name. (Or even the history hovering over his dad's name.)
Kapanen registered no points at all in his nine games with the Maple Leafs. In 44 games with the Toronto Marlies, he was the moon to William Nylander's sun, scoring 9G/16A.
He was sent back to the Marlies after those nine Leafs games so that he would not burn a year of his entry-level contract. Mike Babcock reflected on Kapanen's ability after his first few games, in his usual Kung-fu master language, saying to the Globe and Mail:
"Well, you’ve got to learn to work, you’ve got to learn to compete. When you’re a kid you always think that you’re going to get the puck back. As you get older you know it’s too hard to get it back so you just hang onto it all the time. There’s lots to learn obviously and they’re works in progress, but it’s got to be a night-on every night."
Kapanen is obviously still a work in progress, but a promising one. After observing Kapanen play against Tampa Bay, Babcock had encouraging words about his skill, noting in particular his "breakaway speed" and power in skating. On this February 29th debut in a Maple Leafs jersey, Kapanen was given almost 17 minutes of ice time, during which he made three shot attempts.
Babcock spilled tough love all over him after this game, telling the CBC: "Just because you did it in the American League doesn't mean you're going to do it here. I want to know who's got upside and who's got hockey sense and who's got determination and who lives right, who's going to be a Maple Leaf for a period of time and who's not."
This is a good point, and given Kapanen's AHL and NHL production, probably means that unless he blows the pants off training camp, he's slated for a little more weathering in the AHL. Unless we lose him to mandatory military service in Finland first.
Kasperi Kapanen spent a lot of time in America as a child. If his family had stayed there instead of going back to Finland when Sami Kapanen's NHL career was over, he would be in college now, playing NCAA hockey and not expecting to graduate for two more years. Instead he speaks American-accented English and plays Finnish-accented hockey.
He's also played two and a half years of Finnish professional hockey and one year of AHL hockey. But he's not ready for the NHL. Pro hockey in your youth is not a guaranteed leg up.
I was surprised to see so many votes higher than mine, since I feel like I'm very high on Kappy. But I ranked based, not on ceilings or floors, but on my best guess of a player's median or, in other words, the player's most likely future based on the play they are actually producing in the present.
Kapanen, when you take his median, is behind William Nylander by quite a bit. Not, so much as some of the lower ranked prospects who are older than Kapanen's 20, but still behind.
He has excellent skills on the ice, and the years of pro hockey really show. But the other thing that shows is that those years were with a bad team in Finland. His consistency is just non-existent. He has a complete game, maybe more so than Nylander even, without the dazzle on the finish, but he needs to learn to execute it all the time.
When he's hot, like he was from about early December through the WJC and on to the weeks that followed, he is nearly Nylander's equal. And then he fades away, passes when he should shoot, coasts a little, seems to vanish inside his own head.
Sheldon Keefe woke him up with a benching in the playoffs and he was the most dominant player on the ice for several games after. So if he can be that Kappy consistently, not sleepy Kappy who isn't really into it, then he'll be ready, and he'll shoot up in the rankings.