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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: #6 Kasperi Kapanen

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Forever linked to Phil Kessel, Kasperi Kapanen comes in at #6 on this year's countdown off his own merit.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody does controversial trades quite the Toronto Maple Leafs do. Sometimes they work out. The acquisitions of the likes of Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and others have all paid dividends for the Leafs in recent memory.

Others, such as those that saw Tuukka Rask, Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin in another organization's mix are more widely contested.

Recently, the trade of Phil Kessel and co. for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spalling and a couple of a picks (a first rounder among them) created instant disappointment among fans who believed the return for one of the two or three highest scoring right wingers in the world could have been larger -- or have been facilitated without lengthy salary retention.

But what makes the Top 25 Under 25 (T25U25) series so intriguing, is that it strips away the context of how each player arrived in Toronto in order to examine where they independently fit now among the organization's top young talent.

And irrespective of the Kessel deal, the T25U25 forces fans to step back and consider what a player is not who he could have been.

So what is Kasperi Kapanen?

He's the third best Leafs prospect (after William Nylander and Mitch Marner).

Known for his lack of scoring at the World Juniors (he created some chances), Kapanen was my 10th ranked prospect heading into the 2014 NHL Draft before he fell to the Penguins at No. 22.

At 19, he has already played and succeeded in two different pro leagues, including two strong playoff performances this season where he registered 10 points in 13 games split between KalPa (6-0-5-5) of Finland's Liiga and Wilkes-Barre (7-3-2-5) of the AHL.

Promoted full-time to Liiga in his draft year after dominating at lower levels -- he registered 13 points in 6 games with KalPa's U18 program in his draft year -- Kapanen registered 35 points in 88 regular season games in the last two seasons on one of Liiga's worst offensive teams.

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Here's a brief look at Kapanen stylistically:

Kapanen, who can get caught playing on the perimeter, has the skill to be an effective top-six winger on his puck carrying ability alone.

His best asset, his puck handling, allows him to create chances off the rush or in quick transition in the offensive zone.

Dangerous one-on-one because of deft stick handling and high-end awareness cross-ice, Kapenen has made waves in Liiga for his highlight reel plays.

Kapanen's excellent edge work on his crossovers to create speed off the rush. - Scott Wheeler, Kasperi Kapanen becomes Leafs third best prospect

A sometimes surprisingly physical player, Kapanen is also unafraid to break up a play with a hit or skate hard on the back check -- he's often the first forward back or wins a race to disrupt an odd-man rush.

Incredible lateral movement helps Kapanen beat defenders with feathery side-to-side cuts, which you can see on display in this goal against the AHL's phantoms:

Likewise, though, Kapanen also has the speed to beat defenders in straight lines when he needs to.

Notice here how he beats the defender (in slow motion) in a straight lane to the net off the rush:

We caught up with Finnish hockey writer Juha Hiitela to discuss Kapanen. Below are his responses.

PPP: Kapanen is going to be heavily scrutinized, being the main prospect returned in the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh? What do Leaf fans need to know about this player?

A: 41 GP, 11G, 10A in season after draft when you compare it to some other first round picks in last few years (mostly Mikael Granlund), it’s not that much. But the team he played on wasn't that good either. They made it to the playoffs (which doesn’t tell you anything, because 10/14 teams in Finnish league get at least to the wild card round - it’s like the NHL in 80’s, you have to be really bad not to get into playoffs - but none of their players scored really well. He had some injury problems too, but points and performance in Finnish league and only one point in five games in World Juniors - after first round selection and really good camp with Pens - season was a disappointment. I think the season before draft was more impressive for a 17-year old.

The team he played on (KalPa, owned by his dad and Kimmo Timonen and minority owner Scott Hartnell) … let’s put it this way… they are The Puck Possession team, but their Corsi wouldn’t tell you that. They pass. And pass. And pass. And pass. And pass. And pass. They won’t dump in any situation. It’s their unique style and it partly also explains both why his points were not that good and maybe also why he struggled in the World Juniors.
PPP: For those of us not familiar with the Finnish league, how do we put Kapanen's play as an 18-year old into context?
A: Being the son of former NHL player, he’s no stranger to North American size rinks. That’s where he learned to play. Also besides dad Sami, his grandpa Hannu is also Finnish Hall of Fame forward/coach and uncle was goalie in Finnish and Swedish league. So the kid has hockey in his blood. In this case I think it shows in a way that he can handle himself in locker rooms with older players, he knows "The Code" and isn’t too shy or too cocky. As a person, I think he’s more mature than many other Finns at his age.

Here's how the voting broke down, with seven of our staff ranking Kapanen exactly where he finished, with only one voter ranking him outside the top 10. Kapanen edged out Peter Holland by one vote for #6 on the countdown.

Moving forward, Kapanen will likely be given consistent playing time deep into the Leafs training camp before starting the season with the Marlies. There, he will factor in as a winger on one of the team's top two lines (with a combination of Leipsic, Leivo, Soshnikov, Hyman, Brown on the other wings) and powerplay units.

Among Leafs forwards prospects, he's likely one of the closest to NHL readiness but would benefit from a year in the AHL to prove it.