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Kapanen growing in confidence since Toronto arrival

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

He’s still four months away from celebrating his first full year in the Maple Leafs organization, but in his time with the American League Marlies – and in the first two games of his NHL career – winger Kasperi Kapanen is making a lot of Toronto fans celebrate his acquisition.

Brought over last July in the trade that sent winger Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 19-year-old Kapanen began this season slowly, but in a new organization, with new teammates and a new coaching staff to adapt to, that’s not out of the ordinary for young professional hockey players. The key to understanding why he’s spoken of so highly these days in Leafs circles is understanding (a) he’s able to do things on the ice very few youngsters can do; and (b) he’s a coachable young man who desperately wants to make his mark on hockey’s ultimate stage, just as his father – Finnish legend Sami Kapanen – did in his 11-year NHL career.

And so far, so good. In his first NHL game against Tampa Bay, Kapanen logged 16:48 of ice time. And although he didn’t find his way onto the scoresheet that night, teammates and Leafs coaching and management staff saw in him a player who didn’t look at all out of place against a Stanley Cup-contender like the Lightning. Indeed, they saw someone who used his quickness, athleticism and elite hand-eye coordination to his advantage, just as he’s done at the AHL level this year.

“I thought he played very well his first game,” said Marlies winger Rich Clune. “He’s a dynamic player, he can turn it on and break away with speed, and he can stickhandle in a phone booth. The first game, I thought he was going to probably pop a goal and he came close.”

“It’s a big jump to go from the AHL to the NHL – sometimes it’s a big jump physically, and sometimes it’s a big jump mentally – so you’re a little surprised, but in terms of what Kappy was able to do, I’m not surprised by that,” added Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “You see his speed and his skill, and I think he had gotten to a point where he was very comfortable here (in the AHL), and you could see his confidence in his game was really high and he was making a lot of things happen offensively. So it was really good to see him be able to take that confidence and apply it right away at the NHL level. We were happy for him that way.”

Kapanen – who scored the gold-medal-winning, overtime goal for Team Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship – was thrilled at making the jump to the NHL. It was something he envisioned constantly as a little boy growing up (mostly in Carolina and Philadelphia, where his father played before finishing his pro career back in Finland), and, with the added comfort of having his best friend and Marlies teammate/linemate William Nylander also making his NHL debut the same night, it was something that felt relatively natural.

“It was obviously a special game for me,” Kasperi said. “It was everything that I dreamed of, really. I think I played really well, and I felt surprisingly comfortable out there.”

In 32 games with the Marlies this season, Kapanen has amassed eight goals and 22 points, but, as always, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Kapanen dealt with an injury early in the season that delayed his development, but once he came back from that injury – and once he returned from the World Juniors – his confidence grew and grew, peaking when Keefe put him on a line with Nylander and winger Zach Hyman.

That trio stayed intact when all three debuted for the Leafs, and the fact all three were on the ice at the end of the game, controlling the play and pressuring the Bolts for the tying goal, said everything about how rapidly and smoothly they made the leap to the NHL level.

“I thought they were one of the best lines that we had all night,” Leafs goalie Garret Sparks – who also has spent much of the season with Kapanen & Co. with the Marlies – said of that rookie line. “They competed as hard as 19-year-old kids can in the NHL, and they created a lot of chances for themselves, just by holding onto the puck and with their speed and skill. I think that’s why they’re here.”

This isn’t to say Kapanen’s game doesn’t need cultivating and care before it reaches its pinnacle. Like all players, he’s got room to improve – physically, mentally and strategically – and the good news for Leafs fans is that he’s already shown the ability to take instruction from team brass and incorporate it into his game to produce positive results. Keefe provides an example:

“The area that I think has grown, and the area that was an issue for him early on, was just consistency – shift-to-shift, game-to-game, bringing his best effort, being competitive,” Keefe said of Kapanen. “I think there has definitely been improvements there at (the AHL) level. And now it’s a whole other challenge for him to be able to do it at the NHL level on a nightly basis. It’s part of being a young player that’s still got some growing to do physically, and maturing and using all the experiences to understand that you’ve got to bring it all the time.

“That’s part of the process, and we saw a growth with him here at this level, and that’s why I think he’s become a really, really good and reliable player for us on both sides of the puck. Now he’s going to be growing at the NHL level.”

Kapanen is likely to do so alongside Nylander, another young talent with the potential to be a Leaf of exceptional impact for many years to come. Clune calls the duo “great kids who are kind of attached at the hip” and share a love for European dance music. More importantly, he notes that, like Nylander, Kapanen has physical skills and a vision for the game that are a cut above the rest, especially when it comes to his play with the puck.

“When he gets the puck, it’s like three hard strides, and he’s got that pull-away speed that’s just tough to do,” Clune said. “And a lot of that, I think, it’s athletic talent, but he’s comfortable and he’s confident, so he’s not hesitating. His mind knows where he wants to go, so his feet follow. I think, for me, I admire guys who can carry the puck comfortably through the neutral zone with their head up, make plays, they don’t stop their feet going. I’m not jealous, but I’m a little bit in awe of guys who can do what he does.”

Kapanen may not remain with the Leafs all season, and it’s entirely possible he returns to the powerhouse Marlies by the end of the regular season to embark on what the organization hopes is a deep playoff run. But he’s cherishing his NHL days right now, he’s thankful that the Leafs and Marlies employ a similar on-ice system that has made his acclimation much smoother than he’d anticipated, and he’s ready to put forth his best effort regardless of whether he’s wearing a Leafs or Marlies jersey the rest of the way.

“I think that’s pretty important for the younger guys that came up,” Kapanen said of the similar systems used by Babcock and Keefe. “The Marlies, we’ve been playing really well this year. It’s been really fun to play over there; we’ve got a good group of guys and lots of talent and leadership on that team. It’s hard to say where you’re going to play the rest of the season, but I’m just trying to enjoy every day that I am over here. That’s really special to me.”

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