Kapanen refuses to pin struggles on playing off-wing for first time
TORONTO – Kasperi Kapanen is blunt about how poor his first three games of this Maple Leafs’ season have been, from the non-existent point total to Saturday’s costly stick-throwing penalty that played a role in his team’s third-period collapse.
But amid the early disappointment, Kapanen isn’t losing faith in his ability to turn things around.
“I just have to stay positive. Sometimes you just go through tough times,” Kapanen said after the Leafs’ morning skate on Monday, ahead of facing the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
“And I'm not saying that our line [with John Tavares and Mitch Marner] has been bad, but I think we haven’t been at our full potential, or at least I haven’t been. Just have to pick it up and start playing the right way and good things will start to happen.”
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Kapanen certainly entered training camp poised to have a breakout season, one reflective of the three-year, $9.6-million contract he signed over the summer. From the get-go, Kapanen was tapped to take over for the injured Zach Hyman on Tavares’ left side and seize an opportunity to play with the Leafs’ top-two point-getters from a season ago.
Despite insisting at the time that switching from right wing to left wouldn’t be a problem, Kapanen has been ice-cold since moving over, coupling zero points with a minus-three rating and just four shots on goal while averaging 18:22 in ice time per game.
The aggravation Kapanen felt over his subpar showings boiled over with a reckless penalty midway through the third period of Saturday’s shootout loss to Montreal. Kapanen blocked a shot off his stick while killing a penalty and then discarded the pieces back towards Jeff Petry, handing the Canadiens defenceman a penalty shot that he scored on to tie the game.
The Leafs’ off-day on Sunday helped Kapanen put the incident behind him and try to get a handle on the emotions that led to it. While it would be easy for him to simply blame the change of wings for his struggles, the 23-year-old won’t concede it has played a factor.
“I think I had time to adjust during camp and preseason games and I felt pretty good,” he said. “And I feel fine with it now; it’s not the problem. I think just me kind of meshing together with those guys; it’s been good, [and] it’s been bad. I think it’s my own game that hasn't been there yet, but [thankfully] we got 79 games left, so plenty of time to improve.”
Kapanen’s time on the Tavares line was always going to be temporary, with Hyman expected to return in early November following surgery for an ACL tear he suffered in April.
But earning that shot on Toronto's first line started well before now. Head coach Mike Babcock outlined how when Kapanen was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies for the Leafs’ playoff run in 2016-17, “Everything he did, we liked.” When he went from fourth-line player at the start of last season to skating on the team’s second line by the end of the year, Babcock said again that, “Anything he did, we liked.”
On the heels of that 44-point effort, and the first 20-goal campaign of his NHL career, Kapanen is experiencing what it means to have more responsibility – not only in playing on his off-wing but in trying to emulate the forechecking role Hyman executes better than any forward on the team.
“We’re evaluating him and he’s evaluating himself. And so that’s the problem with being a good player,” said Babcock. “Once you set the bar, you have to keep raising it. So you’re playing with different players…doesn't mean you have to change things. Have to be at the net, have to get pucks back for them on the forecheck and on retrieval races. That’s what he’s got to do – and be a good penalty killer.”
Babcock also noted the Leafs have plenty of faith Kapanen will come around, and that’s why, “We're playing him 18 minutes a night. We like him. I think it’s just a process for the guy.”
Kapanen feels he’s capable of being the player Toronto is asking him to be, and of supporting his linemates better. Coming off a 47-goal season last year, Tavares has been slow offensively out of the gate, notching just one even-strength point (an assist) so far and zero goals. Marner only has two even-strength points (one goal, one assist) as well, another sign of the lukewarm chemistry their line has generated so far.
“I just have to get my legs going a bit more and be in heavy on the body and hitting as much as I can,” Kapanen said. “And then getting pucks back to those guys and just go in front of the net and try to tip pucks and score goals [from there]. So that's my job. And I think I can do a better job of that.”
His next opportunity to prove it will be Monday night against a heavy Blues team that plays tight defensively.
During these more difficult stretches of his career, Kapanen has always leaned on his father, former NHLer Sami Kapanen, for support. But growing up has meant growing in other ways as well for Kapanen, and he's determined to tackle this rough patch on his own.
“He knows that I know what to do,” Kapanen said of his dad. “I mean, there’s not much to it. It’s still hockey and I know how to play hockey. It's just getting into the groove and getting in a groove with Mitchy and Johnny, so hopefully it happens tonight.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup vs. St. Louis: