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2017 Top 25 Under 25: Kasperi Kapanen is knocking on the NHL’s door at #5

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Brian Boyle said it best, “Finally someone who can keep up with us.”

Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Kasperi Kapanen has played 17 regular season NHL games and has only one point. Normally, that might raise some eyebrows, but when he followed that up with two goals in six games in the playoffs last year, he won a place in many hearts. That phenomenon also goes under the dull name recency bias, so we have to set our hearts aside and take a more clear-eyed look at the man I like to call Kappy with as many exclamation points as I like when I watch him play.

I’ll try to be objective. First, though:

Votes

Kapanen, as you can see from the votes and from Friday’s story on Connor Brown, was nearly tied with Brown for “not the top four”. In fact, the spread in the average vote value for those two plus Timothy Liljegren was less than one. Only five votes were cast for those three players that were not a fifth, sixth or seventh place. There were four eighths and one ninth.

The buzzing of the hive mind is getting louder.

I ordered those three as Brown, Kapanen, Liljegren, but I’m very comfortable with the idea that they are as a group equally “not the top four”.

History

Too much gets made of hockey players whose fathers were athletes, particularly if they played in the NHL. Unpleasant things get said about “bloodlines” that lead away from what matters. A player like Kapanen grew up understanding the game from the inside. He has a comfort level only an insider’s experience gives you. He also isn’t going to be surprised when the going gets tough.

Sami Kapanen is relevant to Kasperi Kapanen’s career in a particular way as well. He’s not very tall. As a smaller man than his son, Sami played NHL hockey before the game began to change away from the clutching and grabbing era and through those changing years. He knew how to teach his not-all-that-big son how to handle it.

Kasperi spent a lot of his childhood in America. Sami played in Hartford the year Kasperi was born, then Carolina for many years, and finally Philadelphia. Sami went back to Finland in 2008 to play for KalPa, and Kasperi spent his youth on that club.

Kapanen graduated up the U16 to U18 to U20 ranks in the usual accelerated way you expect for an NHL-drafted European. But he vaulted right onto the senior team at 16, playing 13 games. He became a full-time member of the KalPa Liiga team at 17. And Sami was right there with him, on the same line at times.

All reports, including Kasperi’s own words, say they weren’t very good together. And it’s likely in hindsight that he could have benefited from at least one more full season on the U20 team. It’s not harmed him, I don’t think, but it’s made him seem older than he is. Most players don’t have five years of pro experience at 21.

His move to the AHL after the trade to the Leafs put him in the comfortable shadow of William Nylander, his Swedish twin. They both speak like Americans and show all the benefits of European hockey but few of the things perceived as weaknesses. Nylander is unquestioningly better, but Kapanen took to AHL-style play with a lot more verve. Verve is code for he won’t take your crap, and he will get into it in the corner just as soon as he’s done doing this:

Kapanen also spent a lot of time playing with grittier guys than Nylander did. Kapanen was winger to Frederik Gauthier a lot. He played with Nikita Soshnikov sometimes as well as Colin Greening. He played opposite wing to Brendan Leipsic quite a bit too, as well as very effectively with Carl Grundström in the playoffs. He did both PK and PP in the AHL, so he may well have played top minutes on the team last year.

Stats

His historical box cars are available at Elite Prospects, but I want to focus on his more recent play.

This is his all-situations chart from Prospect-Stats for last year in the AHL.

That’s very solid top line results. However, like a lot of Marlies last year, his five-on-five point production is much lower. He’s still top 90 in primary points per game played of the players who put in at least 30 games in the league last year, but that’s borderline top line, not off the chart.

But, no matter how much we may like to look at point results and imagine they describe the player in detail and distinguish him from his fellows, points are made up of time on ice and shooting percentages (the player’s and his linemates’). They have huge random fluctuations, and they can cheerfully lie to you about which player is better.

His shot rate (shots on goal only) in that chart, which includes his power play time, is the very high number you want to see in a minor league player that you expect to make the jump. Seth Griffith’s is mid-second line territory, and that’s the difference between these two Marlies wingers who put up very similar points.

That’s the best that numbers can tell us about his AHL career. His very brief first NHL stint in 2015-2016 was marked by a noticeably lower individual Corsi rate than Nylander’s and Zach Hyman’s. He had no verve, only obvious nerves.

Kapanen’s second go at NHL play was obviously different from the first, and he took to fourth line mayhem like he’d been waiting for a couple of really slow guys to play with his whole life. Of course, he had that in Gauthier, but I digress.

He played only 74 minutes of five-on-five time. While we can look at his on-ice shot differentials, it’s not enough to predict anything from. You cannot look at it and say you know who he is, you can only say what he did. I feel like I need to make everyone chant that out loud because it’s hard not to confuse those things even when you know that 74 minutes of play is a hint at best.

Overall with Matt Martin and Brian Boyle, he achieved low shots for and even lower shots against. They played with a fairly even mix of the defenders on the team, and they were up against a fairly even mix of opposing defenders. They faced tougher competition than they count as themselves, but not dramatically.

So, to boil that down, he played an effective role as a fourth line wing and scored some key goals in the playoffs. The only substantial difference between him and Nikita Soshnikov was that Kapanen, with the better centre, achieved better results defensively.

Conclusion

Even the most skeptical view of his results so far should say that Kapanen is ready for the NHL. The virtual tie with Brown in our ranking is warranted by their performance on the ice.

I think Kasperi Kapanen should play in the NHL this year, the whole year. I also think that when faced with this issue last training camp with Connor Brown, Mike Babcock shoved 12 million in veteran salary in the AHL and played Brown. Waiver exemption, which Kapanen has like Brown did then, didn’t factor into his thinking. It shouldn’t.

There is no way that I think Josh Leivo, Eric Fehr or Nikita Soshnikov should be on the Leafs roster ahead of Kapanen. The real question should be: Brown or Kapanen in the top nine?

The Leafs will not have made that decision yet, nor should they have. Training camp will tell us all how far Kapanen has come, how far Brown can go beyond where he is now, and that battle for roster spots will rank right next to the contest for the last two defence spots for intensity.

Enough of this analysis, let’s play some rock music and watch goals:

Kappy!!!!!!!