The Maple Leafs made their first big splash of the off-season on Tuesday, trading Kasperi Kapanen, Jesper Lindgren and Pontus Aberg to Pittsburgh in exchange for the Penguins’ first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft (15th overall), forwards Evan Rodrigues and Filip Hallander and defenceman David Warsofsky.
The move gives the Leafs back a first-round selection in this year’s draft (they sent their own to Carolina last June to dump Patrick Marleau’s salary), and frees up some cap space. Kapanen has two years remaining on the three-year pact he signed last summer, which carries an AAV of $3.2 million.
The 24-year-old winger put up 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 69 games for the Leafs this season, adding two more assists in five postseason tilts. It was a tougher campaign for Kapanen than the season prior, where his 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) in 78 games stand as career bests.
It was that previous success that helped launch Kapanen onto Toronto's top line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner to start this season, but playing on his off-wing stifled Kapanen and the experiment was quickly abandoned.
Kapanen struggled from there to find a regular spot in the lineup, and ultimately fell into a mostly bottom-six role, averaging 15:47 of ice time per night.
But it wasn’t just on the ice that Kapanen dealt with adversity. He was scratched from a game against Ottawa in February after showing up late to practice the day before.
Kapanen explained he had “overslept” and said, “it’s something that I’ve been trying to work on; it was just an honest mistake.” Head coach Sheldon Keefe expressed at the time there was a need for “internal accountability” where Kapanen was concerned, but that “we are a pretty forgiving place…sometimes innocent things just happen.”
Putting the incident behind him, Kapanen became noticeably more physical on the ice. Kapanen also continued to be one of the Leafs' most productive penalty killers, leading the team in shorthanded goals (five) and points (five) since 2017-18.
Kapanen was often at his best with the Leafs on the biggest stages.
In the first round of the 2018 playoffs against Boston, Kapanen scored a terrific shorthanded goal late in the second period of Game 7 that gave the Leafs a lead heading into the final frame. Facing Washington in the 2016 playoffs, Kapanen surged to score once in regulation and then potted the winner in a frenzied Game 2 double-overtime that pulled Toronto even in its best-of-seven series.
Kapanen is now headed back to where his professional career first started. He was the inaugural draft choice by Jim Rutherford as Penguins’ general manager, plucked off the board 22nd overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
Kapanen never appeared in a regular-season game for Pittsburgh before he was shipped to Toronto on July 1, 2015 with Scott Harrington and Nick Spaling in exchange for Phil Kessel, Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon.
Rutherford was previously GM of the Carolina Hurricanes when Kapanen’s father, Sami, played for the club from 1996-2003, and in a news release on Tuesday expressed his excitement over having the younger Kapanen back in the fold.
“Kasperi is a good, young player that brings speed to our lineup and plays the way we want to play,” Rutherford’s statement said. “Having previously drafted him, we know him as a player and feel he can improve our top six.”
While Kapanen was the clear focal point of Tuesday’s trade with Pittsburgh, the Leafs also parted with Lindgren and Aberg.
Lindgren was drafted in the fourth round, 95th overall, by the Leafs in the 2015 draft. He has yet to appear in an NHL contest, and spent the past three seasons splitting time between HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. The 23-year-old defenceman produced 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 35 career appearances for the Marlies. He was most recently on loan to MODO in the Swedish Hockey League.
Aberg came to Toronto as a free agent in July 2019, but appeared in only five NHL contests this season. He played most of the year for the Marlies, and has since signed a one-year contract to play with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL.
In return, the Leafs received not only the first-round choice but three players of varying experience levels.
Rodrigues had spent most of his five-year career with the Buffalo Sabres, before being traded to Pittsburgh in February. The 27-year-old forward skated in seven games after that for the Penguins, and has produced 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists) in 199 career games. He is set to become a restricted free agent.
Pittsburgh drafted Hallander in the second round, 58th overall, in 2018. The 6-foot, 190-pound centre was considered a top-three prospect for the organization, but he has yet to play in North America. Most recently the 20-year-old was with Lulea HF of the Swedish Hockey League.
Veteran defenceman Warsofsky hasn’t played in the NHL since the 2017-18 season, splitting time the last two years between the AHL’s Colorado Eagles and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The 30-year-old Warsofsky had previously appeared in 55 NHL contests for Boston, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Colorado, tallying 11 points (two goals, nine assists).