No one was surprised when the Maple Leafs traded Kasperi Kapanen, but I think most of us were surprised by the return. Kapanen brought back a fifteenth overall pick and an interesting prospect in Filip Hållander. The rest of the deal is just fringe elements and doesn’t really mean much.
I think this trade looks like a fleecing for the Leafs for a player who is not value added above a third-line role. Kapanen has often been miscast as an offensive player because of his speed, and yet his isolated player impacts have always have always shown it’s his shot-share that he’s best at. He’s a Corsi player, not an Expected Goals player. Or put another way, generally good things happen when he’s on the ice, but he’s not creating quality at either end.
For the Penguins, they genuinely see Kapanen as a top-six winger. The Leafs took Kapanen, made him into a practitioner of the modern penalty-kill style of a very high quality, but correctly realized he’s only just an okay shooter, and his additional value offensively is very small.
Kapanen will be the third-best player on a top line, it might be a good line in Pittsburgh. They might consider him a great value as a backseat passenger while Sid or Geno drive the car. On the Leafs, the choice was going to be to have him be one of the better players on the third line. In other words: Pittsburgh, using their own unique needs and context, values the player differently to the Leafs. And that’s how you trade someone and get a very happy return.
After the playoff loss to Boston. The most recent one, I mean, I wrote a comparison of Kapanen to Andreas Johnsson as they were both heading for new contracts. For some reason, the general fan feeling at that time was that Johnsson was the better player, and I was frankly a lot baffled by that. It wasn’t even points! Their goals, assists and points were almost identical.
The closest I ever got to an answer was that Kapanen’s points had come early in the 2018-2019 season, and Johnsson’s had come later, and that Johnsson had the coveted power-play skills, while Kapanen was very good at the lesser job of a fun to watch penalty kill. He’s just fast, and nothing else, was the tagline for Kapanen.
I have always wondered, however, if my lower opinion on Johnsson was one of familiarity breeding contempt. I’ve watched him extensively in the SHL, the AHL, and the NHL, and I’ve looked deeply at his play in all three places to the point that there’s no mystery there for me. Maybe he just bores me?
In that old Johnsson vs Kapanen article, I used the model HockeyViz had then to compare them, and they seemed very close in value. So close that allowing for the lack of perfection of any model made them a virtual tie. Their nearly equal contracts seemed fine. Using HockeyViz’s newer models that look at career isolated Expected Goals, Johnsson is a small drag on both offence and defence, mitigated by enough power-play impact, he’d be top unit on a lot of teams. Kapanen is better offensively by a trivial amount and worse defensively.
Evolving Hockey’s more modern model now shows them both bad at Expected Goals Against, and okay at everything else. This season, however, Johnsson looks pretty bad by both methods of isolating out his impact, which is a problem. He was played in the last playoff game as ‘proof of life’, since there was not one other valid reason to do it, but his most recent season needs to be tossed out entirely to see him as a good value for his contract.
If you toss out this past year, he’s a decent top-six winger who should be the third-best player on his line, and who would play as a very good third-line winger on a team with more depth at his position. He’s got one trick on the power play, and it involves standing at the right corner of the net and tapping in goals or centring passes to the bumper. He hasn’t played any right wing that I can recall, and has no penalty kill ability. He’s both less versatile than Kapanen, with higher-value skills. He’s also older, and hasn’t got the cachet of a first-round draft position.
Ideally — no matter the desire to sign Alex Pietrangelo — the Leafs should be moving on from both of these wingers now when they tick all the boxes for other teams looking to add skill up front. What boxes are those? Let’s ask the New Jersey Devils.
On Saturday night’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, it was reported that the Devils are looking to trade one or both of their lower quality first round picks (the 18th and 20th) for players 26 and under with years of team control. We know Kyle Dubas discussed trading with the Devils in his first round of trade talks when he was looking specifically for a first-rounder. That deal didn’t work, whatever it was.
It is plausible to think Johnsson could be moved out, with his spot filled by more ice time for Nick Robertson, Pierre Engvall and perhaps someone like Evan Rodrigues or Alexander Barabanov. It looked like Nick Robertson should step right into an NHL second unit power play in his brief NHL career of four games, but I’m sure he’s not top six as a winger yet, while Barabanov is unproven. There is still Ilya Mikheyev to consider, or maybe the time has come for the Leafs to finally clone Zach Hyman and find someone on the left wing side to play his role. Filip Hållander will come to training camp and try, and might even look broadly plausible, but I think he really needs an AHL season.
It’s not as comfortable to move Johnsson because Mikheyev seemed like a perfect lower-cost Kapanen replica, but maybe a downgrade from Johnsson to whomever is the price you pay to build up elsewhere and rebalance the forward lines at the same time.
But would a team like the Devils see Johnsson as more valuable than the Leafs do, and therefore consider paying with the 20th overall and a prospect of some worth? By a crude measure of one season of Goals Above Replacement, there are seven New Jersey forwards better than Johnsson (measuring his worst results remember). One is Blake Coleman, currently happy in Tampa, another is Kyle Palmieri, on the last season of deal that will end when he’s 30, a third is Nikita Gusev, also in his last season, and a fourth is a small-minute defensive wonder Joey Anderson.
Even with some young players coming up the ranks for the Devils, Johnsson would absolutely class out as top-six on their team. Is he enough bang for that buck? That’s a good question, but the number of players in their criteria range under contract for at least Johnsson’s three years is very small, and most of them aren’t available.
Now, let’s be real. They should try to get Johnny Gaudreau or some other deprecated, but higher-end player. They should see if the Jets are silly enough to trade Nikolaj Ehlers or consider expiring RFAs that aren’t going to be arbitration eligible right away. But if that doesn’t work, they are definitely a team better off with Johnsson than without, while his career impact on the Leafs fades into insignificance next to the top four forwards who need to be carrying the offence on the team.
It’s possible Kyle Dubas could pull off something broadly similar to the Kapanen trade and give the Leafs more futures, more cap space, and an opportunity to redesign the edges of the forward corps.
Now as for prospects the Devils could throw in, they have a decent array, but how willing a rebuilding team is to part with prospects is a good question. They do have one guy, though, and hear me out, but he’s a KHL defenceman named Zaitsev...
Should we trade Johnsson or are we just falling in love with draft picks and cap space?
This poll is closed
Yes, I’m also bored by him.
No, stop ripping apart the team!