Kasperi Kapanen is a player with obvious strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who has watched a full game of Kapanen could tell you that he’s among the fastest players in the world. It’s common to think that speed is what has given Kapanen an NHL job. Is he more than his speed?
Well, speed is certainly central to his game. He uses it to act as a dangerous puck carrier who needs to be respected through the neutral zone. It’s also a defensive tool of his. The threat of his speed forces teams to pay attention to him, even when they have the puck. But it’s far from his only skill. While he may have been drafted as an offense-only player, in the NHL, he’s shown some defensive nous (especially when grading on the light curve that we use for Leafs forwards). He doesn’t shy away from contact, from board battles, or from mixing it up. He has a good stick, and he was a 1st round draft pick for more than his legs. He has legit skill to go along with it.
This package results in some pretty impressive measurable impacts. Kapanen is a player that generally moves the puck in the right direction. Last year, his CF% was 53.0%, about 2% higher than the Leafs average without him. If we look at fancier stats like RAPM, Kapanen had among the most positive impacts on shot differential among Leafs forwards (only John Tavares and William Nylander exceeded him in this respect). If we look at his impact on expected goals instead, Zach Hyman also jumps ahead of him, but once again, Kapanen rates highly. Almost every teammate does better with Kapanen than without in terms of CF% and xG%, so this result is not surprising. Based on these numbers, Kapanen is above average, though not elite, in his ability to drive play.
For those of us who like counting points, Kapanen does fairly well there too. His 1.90 5v5 P/60 ranked 117th among forwards last year (with a minutes cutoff of 500), suggesting that he scores like a strong second line forward. Players who scored at similar rates last year include Nikolaj Ehlers, James van Riemsdyk, and Ryan Getzlaf. An ‘average’ 5v5 scoring rate is about 1.60 P/60, so over the course of a season (about 1100 5v5 minutes for a player like him), you can consider him as adding 5-6 5v5 points more than an average forward (based on last year).
While he did have an above average on-ice shooting percentage (most Leafs did), Kapanen actually undershot his own expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. Most impressively, Kapanen’s shot rate and expected goal rate put him in the top 50 forwards in the league, notably above the league average. Consequently, his scoring seems relatively sustainable.
So based on all this, we have a (mostly) home-grown player who is above average at driving play, can generate his own shot at strong rates, finish well, and has the added bonus of a good penalty differential? And he’s only 23, signed for 3 more years at $3.2M per year! What’s not to like?
Well, this is where the obvious weaknesses come in. Kapanen’s skillset means that he often creates amazing chances with his feet that his hands and brains can’t convert on. That sticks in your mind. While the caricature of Kapanen as nothing more than a leggy blonde is unfair, he’s also not really outsmarting and out-thinking his opponents the way the roadrunner did to Wile E. Coyote. What has to be remembered is that if his hands and brain could keep up with his feet, he wouldn’t be Kasperi Kapanen. He’d be Connor McDavid.
Getting more specific, and leaving the tortured metaphors aside, Kapanen is a mediocre passer who doesn’t really make use of his teammates the way the two RWs ahead of him on the depth chart do. He can seem like a bit of a one-man band. At times, it feels like it almost doesn’t matter who his linemates are. Regardless of who he’s with, Kapanen will create rush chances, push play in the right direction, and finish on a respectable amount of his shots.
You can see this in the highlight pack below of his goals. It’s a lot of well placed shots that arise from opportunities created by his speed. It’s a lot of opportunism in the offensive zone — his shot creation is not just based on rush chances. However, what is notably underrepresented are intricate combinations with his teammates and plays where Kapanen makes use of their skills.
This can be viewed as a negative or a positive. On the negative side, you want as many players whose skills build off and connect to one another’s as possible. On the other, it means Kapanen is not dependent on teammates to succeed the way a player like, say, Jeremy Bracco is. Kapanen is far more versatile, and while he and Bracco may have both seemed like top six or bust players when drafted, Kapanen has evolved into a player who can survive in a multitude of roles. That Kapanen’s offense is also good enough to play in most teams’ top six is another point in his favour — it’s hard to criticize him for not being on the level of Nylander or Mitch Marner.
Also, I don’t want to overstate Kapanen’s lone-wolf tendencies. It’s not as if he can’t get good results with strong players. The Johnsson - Matthews - Kapanen line had very strong results last season; they operated at about 55% CF% and 53% xG%, and even better when looking at actual goals. However, the same line with William Nylander on it was even better. While both of these lines only played about 200 minutes, the results make intuitive sense. Kapanen is a very good player, but Nylander is obviously better, and has a skillset that meshes perfectly with elite players. Barring injury, the Leafs shouldn’t play Kapanen in their top two lines the way they did last year, with Kapanen spending about two thirds of his 5v5 time with Matthews.
I haven’t yet discussed Kapanen’s penalty killing. It’s often hard to quantitatively suss out whether a player is legitimately good at PKing. However, I can say with confidence that Kapanen passes the eye test with flying colours, and his speed is an absolutely terrifying weapon for opposing PPs to deal with. Ask Brad Marchand.
Put all this together, and what do we have? While Kapanen might not be good enough to displace the Leafs two star RWs, 30 other teams aren’t as lucky as Toronto, and most of them would happily take Kapanen to be their 2RW. Kapanen isn’t Connor Brown, who had some defensive utility, but was mostly a below average forward who extracted every ounce of talent from his body. Kapanen is an ideal complementary piece, a player who doesn’t necessarily make his teammates better, but adds his own skills to any forward mix without taking too much off the table. He can play both special teams (though I think he adds more value on the PK than the PP), he can play a variety of roles, and from a fan’s standpoint, he’s always one misplaced pass, one loose puck, or one silly mistake away from creating a breakaway.
The natural comparison for Kapanen on our T25 list is with Andreas Johnsson. To me, they are similar caliber players, with Kapanen having an advantage on this list as he is nearly two years younger. Both are strong complementary pieces who drive play and score at above average rates. In other words, they are modern second line players. Johnsson had more impressive scoring rates last year, but also shot like prime Steven Stamkos, a feat I think he is unlikely to repeat. The Leafs’ relative weakness at LW also means Johnsson will likely get to play on a line with either Matthews/Nylander or Tavares/Marner, and his own PP prowess means that he will likely play on PP1 and accrue points in that manner. It wouldn’t be surprising if Johnsson scored more points than any Leaf not named Matthews, Tavares, Marner, or Nylander.
I ranked Kapanen at 6 and Johnsson at 8, with Alexander Kerfoot splitting them (if I were to redo this, I would seriously consider moving Kapanen to 5, swapping him and Travis Dermott). Those three are all in roughly the same boat to me, as above average NHLers without star upside. Characterizing them as such sounds like damning with faint praise, but it is a genuine accomplishment to be a solidly above average NHLer, and each of those three will have long and fruitful NHL careers. It also speaks well of the Leafs that they have managed to acquire a trio of prime-aged complementary forwards to play alongside their trio of pre-prime star forwards. These players don’t grow on trees, and Kasperi Kapanen is (IMO) the best of the bunch. That’s a pretty damn good thing to be, and it’s why he finds his way to #4 on our list.