While the Mitch Marner deal is job one for Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs — and ideally should be completed before the NHL Draft on June 21 — the other two major RFA deals pending also need attention.
Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson both need new contracts, and both of them are going to hear their names in trade speculation even after they re-sign. That’s just part of playing for the Leafs. The speculation will go: If you had to trade one of them to get the one true defenceman who will rule us all, which one do you pick?
Kapanen turns 23 this summer, and is a right-shooting right wing, who has shown some ability to play the left side. His current contract is the ELC he signed with Pittsburgh, which slid for two years while he played, first in Finland, and then on the Marlies for two and a half seasons after being traded to Toronto. He has played one and a half NHL seasons, and he is due a substantial raise.
Johnsson turns 25 later this year, and he is a left-shooting left wing — a rarer commodity on the Leafs. His current contract is the qualifying offer he signed last year coming off his ELC. That deal never slid, as he was too old by the time he signed it. He played one more season in Sweden, and two on the Marlies after he signed that deal, and this past season is his first full NHL season. He has arbitration rights.
Both players’ agents had meetings with Kyle Dubas during the season. He reported himself that he was talking to both of them. Reports claimed various things were said or offered, but the main gist of it was that Kapanen is likely to sign a deal without much problem, but Johnsson, who bet on himself by signing the qualifying offer last summer to bring him to arbitration eligibility, is a tougher deal to get done.
If Johnsson wants to elect salary arbitration, he can do that before July 5. If the Leafs wanted to just cut to it and elect arbitration themselves, they have a problem. Johnsson’s current salary is too low for the first team-elected window which begins June 15. The second window, which is July 5 to July 6, allows a team to go to arbitration when the player declined to elect it himself. This all matters because the party who did not elect the arbitration chooses the contract length (one or two years). If they end up needing arbitration to settle this, the Leafs will want to choose a two-year deal, and Johnsson will likely want to roll the dice again and go with one year, but it doesn’t look likely he’ll get the chance to make that call.
Of course, Johnsson could just come to a deal with the Leafs outside of arbitration as Kapanen will have to.
Evolving Hockey have brought out a contract prediction model for 2019 (Matt Cane now works for the Devils). Their model (explained in this article) predicts Johnsson with a four-year deal for $3.7 million. At shorter terms, the AAV moves to $3 million for three years and $2.4 million for two years.
For Kapanen, they have predicted a two-year deal at $2.27 million. For longer terms, the AAV rises to $3 million at three years and $3.54 million at four years.
I don’t think the Leafs are interested in signing either player at over $3 million, so we should expect short terms for both of them. This model predicts what the contract is likely to be, not what it should be, and I disagree very strongly with that ranking of the two players that has Johnsson as due more in salary.
Kapanen vs Johnsson — who is better?
Many fans would agree with the EH model that rates Johnsson a little higher than Kapanen. That current perception of these players is very backwards to how I see them, however. First, Johnsson has a halo of more recent goal scoring that it pays to look beyond.
At five-on-five and in the regular season, Kapanen had a significantly higher shot rate to Johnsson (16 iCF/60 to 12), higher Expected Goals and a lower shooting percentage.
Johnsson had the third highest shooting percentage on the team of regular roster players. At 15.69% it’s right in the tantalizing range where it’s not obviously absurd like Gregg KcKegg’s league leading 23% for players with over 300 minutes, but it’s not so high you think it’s never going to happen again for sure. Johnsson is 28th in the league, so, no it’s not happening again.
Kapanen had a very normal 9%, which is a little bit down from his unlikely-to-be-repeated 12% of his rookie season.
The result of their variation in shooting results was a higher points pace for Johnsson in less ice time, but a nearly identical set of boxcars with 20 goals each, 24 assists for Kapanen and 23 for Johnsson. Their good on-ice results in Corsi and Expected Goals percentages are also nearly identical. Johnsson had some fourth-line minutes, which I think makes his on-ice numbers look better, given the way the Leafs rolled their fourth line out to very good results, no matter who was on it.
They are both good support wingers who can play top six or middle six minutes. HockeyViz has their current estimated contributions isolated from teammates that look like this:
It’s worth looking at the Leafs’ team shooting to see how these two compare to the team style:
This image is also available in an animation, which shows how that shot map changed as the season progressed.
The Leafs recipe for success is the big red blob of death where they shoot heavily from the most high-danger locations on the ice and just don’t bother much with any other shooting. Point shots tend to come from the left side only. Both Kapanen and Johnsson experienced more right-point shooting, and while they both look like Leafs players from their on-ice shot maps, there was not quite as heavy a concentration in the low slot, particularly when Johnsson was on the ice.
The biggest difference between them, judging by the isolated impact charts, is that Kapanen takes so few penalties that his penalty differential is of significant value to the team. Other than that, their impact is similar at both ends of the ice. They each provide work for the other, since Kapanen draws penalties as does Johnsson, but Johnsson takes more. I’d rather have a busy power play than a busy penalty kill, however.
I think Kapanen is absolutely the better player. He’s younger, more versatile — he can play PK very well and isn’t embarrassing on the PP. His playoff performance was actually significantly better than Johnsson’s. Johnsson has the buzz lately of a “Swiss Army Knife player” who can do any job on the ice, but I guess his “get to the net” blade snapped off sometime before the playoffs. The buzz that he’s more useful than Kapanen, or that Kapanen is just speed and nothing else, isn’t borne out by their results.
As I outlined in the previous post, neither one of these players performed at a high level in the playoffs with Auston Matthews. They’re both good, useful and likely to be affordable, but they aren’t elite line-driving players. Ideally, the Leafs want to keep both of them at affordable rates because good support wingers who can play the Leafs system are valuable, but not so valuable, you want to overpay them.
Johnsson and Kapanen will join Connor Brown in trade rumours involving the Leafs, and as always, those rumours will involve defencemen. The Leafs already spent their extra prospects on a defenceman in the Muzzin trade, so if they want to make another deal that’s for more than what Brown will bring, they’ll need to put a scoring-line roster player on the table.
There’s a case to be made that Kapanen, as primarily a right wing, is the surplus player. The arrival of Ilya Mikheyev, if he is NHL-ready, adds to that. But while Kapanen might return more in trade because he’s younger, neither one of them will bring in a top pairing defender. The two of them together wouldn’t get you a genuine top-pairing defender with term on his contract. The question has to be: Given what you’d get for them, is any potential trade worth making in the bigger picture?
I’d like to see both of them on the team this fall because I don’t think the Leafs have a surplus at any position. The Leafs have prospects, and a lot of them are wingers but few, if any of them, look like they are destined to move higher than Frederik Gauthier’s line. That said, if the Leafs find a deal that means they have to trade one of Johnsson and Kapanen — and even recognizing that Kapanen might return more in trade — I’d move Johnsson.
I doubt that happens, however, and I figure the pair of them will sign deals that add up to less than Patrick Marleau’s, and they will be key contributors to the team.
As far as the future goes, at only 23, Kapanen can be expected to turn in a better performance this coming season. At 25, Johnsson is hitting the point of his career where he’s not going to decline, but he’s unlikely to see much growth in his game either.
They were both less than they needed to be in the playoffs, however, and for Auston Matthews, and therefore the Leafs, to succeed, the wingers on his line have to perform better. We might see that situation solved by swapping Nylander and Kapanen this season, but Johnsson needs to live up to his hype with more than his shooting percentage if he’s going to keep that second line left-wing spot.
Your turn. Who do you rate higher? And do you think trading away 20 goals for what either would bring is a good plan?
Who do your rate higher — Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen?
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