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Kapanen Fighting for Roster Spot

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Kasperi Kapanen always had a legitimate chance to make the Penguins’ opening-night roster.

But that window may have opened wider for Pittsburgh’s 2014 first-round draft pick with winger Beau Bennett sustaining a lower-body injury during training camp that will keep him out six weeks.

“That’s an unfortunate injury for Beau,” Kapanen said. “But obviously it opens up a spot for somebody and just like everybody here, I’m just fighting for a spot and hopefully I’ll get it.”

Kapanen certainly has a lot going for him in his battle to be on the team.

He’s similar to Bennett, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in 2010, in that he’s first and foremost a finesse player. Kapanen is a high-end talent with high-end speed that says his skating and playing with the puck are his biggest strengths. A word that comes to mind when watching him play is “slippery.”

He’s also spent the last two seasons playing against men in Finland’s top professional league, so as Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford put it at the draft, “his development has moved along a little more than other players.”

Now, with a player as young as Kapanen – who just turned 18 on July 23 – mental immaturity could potentially be a concern when considering whether he could transition to the life of a professional athlete and go through the ups and downs that come with that. Because of that, the coaches and staff spend a lot of time teaching the prospects what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin both on and off the ice – how you act, how you work, how you train.

But that’s not an issue at all with Kapanen. He’s the son of longtime NHLer Sami Kapanen, so Kasperi has spent virtually his entire life learning from his dad – whom he called his “biggest influence” – what it means to be a pro in this league.

“He’s a very, very mature kid for his age,” Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. “Obviously having his father playing so many years in the NHL and playing with him and bringing him up that way, he’s already a pro, so he’s ahead of the game in that department.”

In fact, fellow Finn Olli Maatta – who was in a similar situation last year, when an injury to Kris Letang created an opening on the blue line that the then-19-year-old defenseman took – said he could actually learn a thing or two from Kapanen.

“I think he knows a lot himself already because he’s been around the NHL a lot, around his dad playing in the NHL,” answered Maatta with a smile when asked if he’d taken Kapanen under his wing at all. “So it could be the other way around, I guess.”

Kapanen left a terrific impression on the Penguins’ staff and management when he came to development camp in July. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to attend the rookie tournament in September due to injury, but he has been getting a good look at training camp as he’s played in four of Pittsburgh’s five exhibition games entering their last one on Wednesday in Detroit.

Kapanen’s most impressive game was in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win over Columbus on Sept. 27. A player with his skill level is definitely projected to be a top-six guy, and that’s where the coaches have been playing him. That night, he skated on a line with Chris Kunitz and Brandon Sutter and was on the first power-play unit – where he scored a big goal when he sniped a shot from the bottom of the circle into the top of the net.

“The original intention was to have (Sidney) Crosby, Kunitz and Kapanen on a line,” head coach Mike Johnston said that night. “So we’ve tried to play him in different spots just to see how he looks with players and to see if he could play with guys like that, then Sutter bumped up there in that spot. I thought ‘Kap’ looked good. He’s very good on the power play. You can see his offensive skills and his instincts. … His skill and his speed and his poise with the puck is very good.”

The one part of his game Kapanen does need to work on, said Johnston, is his defensive play.

“As we talked to him about, defensively he’s still got to learn the game,”

Johnston said. “How it is as a coach, you always want to trust your players defensively. I’ve seen big strides in the last couple days. But you have to remember, a guy like him is coming over and playing on a different ice surface, so things do change that way.”

Anything could happen in these next few days. But as long as Kapanen’s here, he’s going to do everything he can to convince the staff that he deserves a spot on the roster.

“Just keep playing my game,” Kapanen said. “Use my strengths, the things that got me here. Hopefully I get a spot.”

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