With the top two right wing spots on the Leafs sewn up, the third and fourth grow in importance in training camp and preseason. The third-line job was definitely Connor Brown’s last season, once Mitch Marner stopped playing with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk on what was a very atypical third line. Is it automatically his this year?
Given the way Brown performed on the Bozak line — contrary to many assumptions, their results did not degrade with the loss of Marner — it sure seems like it’s his to lose. But leaving aside the question of the dual-side winger Tyler Ennis for today, the most likely contender to unseat Brown is Kasperi Kapanen.
There is no question at all that Kapanen will play his first full season in the NHL this year, but the where is not a sure thing. I’ll tell you what I think will happen. I think Brown will be right there at Nazem Kadri’s right hand, and I think Kapanen will be playing on the fourth line. I think that won’t change unless an injury forces a change.
But is that what should happen? It’s easy to decide who should take the better gig based on what you like in a player and how much you’re influenced by how much fun Kapanen is, or how satisfying Brown’s everyman style of play is. But how do you really decide? Flip a coin? Tie goes to the veteran?
We haven’t ever conclusively decided this around here, so I don’t think there is an obvious answer. In our T25 we keep voting them into near ties. In 2017, we had Brown sixth and Kapanen fifth, and all but one voter had Kapanen fifth or sixth. Brown’s votes were spread out a little. In 2018, we had Kapanen sixth and Brown way down at ninth. But that’s age being considered. The T25 is in part about the future. Today I want to talk about the here and now.
What separates them now?
Connor Brown is 24 (four months from being 25), and he’s a right-shooting right wing. He’s listed at six feet tall and 185 lbs. He’s under contract until the end of the next season, or the summer of 2020, at a very fair $2.1 million. He’ll still be an RFA when that deal expires, but he’ll have arbitration rights.
Kasperi Kapanen is 22 (10 months away from being 23), and he’s a right shooting right wing. He’s listed at six feet one inch and 187 lbs. He’s under contract until this summer, still on his ELC, and he will be an RFA with no arbitration rights when it runs out.
So, obviously if you believe in the Machiavellian schemes put forth to dampen players’ results to manipulate their contract values, you have to see Kapanen on the fourth line all year. After all, you’re trying to make him sign his qualifying offer this coming summer and put off the big contract for a year. I would never expect that to be anything but a deep down the list tie-breaker in deciding a roster spot, but if ever it was going to be a consideration, this might be the time. But not at the expense of markedly better play from Kapanen. This would really need to be a tie-breaker.
The other thing is that, while I’m not going to value Kapanen today like I would in the T25, he should be a better player than he was last year and Brown is Brown. He’s entering his peak years, which on average is a nice long plateau with only the gentlest of declines that are years off yet for him. But it’s not reasonable to expect no growth in a 22 year old entering his first full season.
Brown vs Kapanen: career regular season points
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I started here to show you the obvious. Their AHL results are nearly identical, and Kapanen has not played enough NHL hockey yet to have a very useful sample of results. So far, there is no reason to think that Kapanen is going to be markedly better than Brown. But if all you had to do to decide a roster was look at career points stats, this would be easy.
Brown vs Kapanen: career shot metrics
If all you had to do to make up a roster was pick the guy with the best Corsi, this would be easy.
The only significant difference here is that Kapanen has played a lower-event style of hockey than Brown has. But on the percentages, they work out to be around the usual Leafs team average of meh. The interesting thing about this is that low event, and way, way lower than the team average in CA/60 is generally what you think of when you think of a fourth line player. But it’s also what you expect in a checking line player, too. And while we don’t know exactly how the Kadri line will be used, we should expect it to be very different from the gentle ride the Bozak line enjoyed last year, and not dramatically different to Kadri’s matchup role.
And there’s the problem, isn’t it? These two players have been playing very different hockey all this time.
And here is where the RelT stats might come in handy. If I look at RelT (relative and weighted for teammates) xGF% (unblocked shots for and against weighted for quality) I get Brown at -2.18 and Kapanen at 1.24. That’s a massive difference in Kapanen’s favour. And we should have seen that coming. Brown played with top scoring lines the bulk of last season, and Kapanen played with Leo Komarov and Dom Moore more than anyone else. This holds true for their past seasons as well.
If you look at the RelT Corsi percentage, Brown looks less terrible, but he’s still below team average and Kapanen is still well above. What’s happening is that the weighting for shot quality bombs Brown’s okay Corsi Against to something worse than team average.
We’ve now gotten from a near tie in recorded ability, to an indication that Kapanen has better defensive skills and his overall ability is being disguised by bad teammates. This is the classic profile of a young player who should get a better opportunity.
Brown, speaking just of the most recent season now, played most of his minutes when the game was close. He wasn’t the first guy out there in a tie, when a goal against would be killer, but he didn’t rack up blowout minutes either.
Kapanen, on the other hand, played the least meaningful minutes of any forward. It’s normal to play your fourth line more, and everyone else less, when the game is in the bag, one way or another. But his usage was stark, much more skewed than Moore or Matt Martin (or even Connor Carrick).
If shift start location is your thing, Brown was used very offensively and Kapanen defensively. I tend to think this gets captured well enough in the RelT calculation, but what the RelT numbers and the usage information tells us is that Brown was given all the advantages there are to be had, and Kapanen was not. But the ask of the two players was very different.
Both players are regulars on the PK. Both are good, but Kapanen seems to be just a bit better both in location and amount of shots allowed.
Brown had the worst CF/60 of any Leafs forward who saw meaningful power play minutes last year. He shouldn’t be on the power play, but there’s no reason to think Kapanen will take that spot. Andreas Johnsson and John Tavares should get the Van Riemsdyk and Bozak spaces, and then it’s anyone’s guess, but Brown should be a very low on the list for consideration.
This is hard to judge because Kapanen has played a lot less, but their shot locations are fairly similar and good, but not Matthews-level of concentration at the goal mouth. In terms of rate of personal shooting, Kapanen shoots like a second line forward and Brown like a depth player. Sorry, which one is the “pass first” Finn and which is the OHL product?
In terms of career Individual Expected Goals per 60 minutes, or their personal unblocked shots weighted for shot quality, Kapanen is slightly higher than Brown, which is interesting given the lower Rel T overall number there. So Kapanen, as an individual, is a better shooter, but not necessarily a better offensive player. Both are good enough shooters to stick then on a secondary scoring line and gain from it.
I think Brown has been miscast as a utility player with defensive ability. I think Kapanen has been miscast as a powerful offensive force built on speed. If you want defence with personal shooting skill, you want Kapanen, and if you want a reasonable offensive support player on a middle six line who can be kept out of the defensive zone, you want Brown. If you flip one to the left side, and play them with Kadri, you have a hell of a line that can do a lot of different things well. (Despite the persistent meme from fans that Kapanen plays both wings, he doesn’t in any meaningful way. Brown has done it more, I think, but Kapanen was always a RW on the Marlies. Switching makes no real sense for either of them.)
The situations these two players experienced last season are gone. Brown is not going to get that gentle offensive usage where all he had to do was bunt the puck towards JvR to create a goal. Kapanen is not going to play most of his minutes with the offensive nullification field of Leo Komarov.
Kapanen really looks like he should be played in more meaningful situations with better linemates, and he can get that by staying right where he was on the fourth line.
Brown should never ever be mistaken for a good guy to put with Auston Matthews late in a tie game. Ask Arvind to rant on this topic, if you want the full story on that bad idea.
So, what’s likely to happen is that Brown will look a little worse this year playing with Kadri, Kapanen will look better because he’ll be getting in the groove of a full season and playing with a better class of fourth liner. And much like the interesting problem of what if Tyler Ennis is better than we think — what if Kapanen looks better than Brown in unmistakable fashion by the halfway point in the season?
Right now, Brown as 3RW and Kapanen as 4RW is fine. The differences between them are small and obscured in the numbers by the limitations of RelT weighting. If you swapped them around halfway through each game, the variance in their results would not be stark.
The key moment of decision is when Kapanen passes Brown in a conclusive and unmistakable way. I think he will, and that’s when who plays where will matter.
All Expected Goals information is from Corsica. Other numbers and concepts are from HockeyViz and NaturalStatTrick.