TORONTO – If only temporarily, Kasperi Kapanen remains the one left behind.
The one left waiting.
He’s had a fine season in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies and was recently named an all-star alongside teammate Brendan Leipsic, another player whose time as an NHLer seems to be more a matter of “when” rather than “if.”
But Kapanen is the prospect with the most pedigree – a first-round pick, the son of a former NHLer, the kid who scored the “Golden Goal” for Finland at the 2016 world junior tournament. He’s also a close friend and roommate of current Leafs forward William Nylander.
Despite this, he’s arguably the only hockey fan in Toronto not caught up in the team’s surprising start this season.
“Now I’m a Marlie and to be honest I don’t watch the Leafs games or anything,” Kapanen said Tuesday. “I don’t really follow them. Obviously, I’ll ask Willy how he played after the game. That’s about it.
“If they’re playing well, they can do whatever they want.”
This approach is best understood as a coping mechanism. The 20-year-old was part of the exciting wave of Leafs callups made after last season’s trade deadline and believes deep down that he should still be a member of the team today.
Scouts who have watched him this year tend to agree with that point of view. There’s even a strong sentiment within the Leafs organization that he’s prepared to make the jump.
“I’m a believer,” said one person on the inside.
Added a scout from another team: “I can’t find a flaw (that will keep him out of the NHL).”
However, an opportunity hasn’t arisen with the Leafs enjoying a remarkably healthy and successful first three months. And so Kasperi waits, and works.
The organization has sought to help him develop tools that should be useful at the next level. Kapanen and Leipsic are both being used on the penalty kill this season because the Leafs believe their skill slots on the power play have already been spoken for by others.
Kapanen is a scorer – with 16 goals and 32 points in 31 games – but there are only so many seats at the big kids table. It’s up to him to carve out a niche that fits the group.
“As a young player that’s a high draft pick, that’s got the offensive abilities that he does, he wants to focus on scoring and he wants to show up well with his statistics,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. “But he has an elite asset, which is his speed, and there’s a lot more to the game where you can utilize that other than just creating offence.”
At least one teammate thinks he would be among the very fastest skaters in the NHL right now. It’s the biggest reason why his climb seems inevitable, and likely before the season is out.
Kapanen ended up playing nine games for the Leafs last season and says the experience left him “really hungry for the next opportunity.”
Those close to the Finn see more maturity in his second full year of professional hockey in North America. The Marlies are giving him huge minutes and trusting him to protect a lead in the dying seconds of a game.
He’d never previously been a penalty killer at any point in his life, but seems to be embracing the idea that the Leafs have a larger plan for him.
“This is my first year doing it and I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of it,” said Kapanen. “So I guess I’m turning into a PK player now. That’s my future.”
The Marlies have graduated a flood of players to the NHL in the past year: Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Frederik Gauthier, among them.
Keefe believes it’s only human nature for those left behind to wonder when their time will come, but likes how Kapanen has handled his situation.
“You really see the maturity through the summer and preparing for the season … and not overthinking the fact that he’s not in the NHL,” said Keefe. “Just coming here to play and take advantage of the chances that he’s getting to round out his game and make sure he’s ready if and when the time comes.”
The call could come at any moment, really.
He’s only one injury or roster decision away from the Air Canada Centre.
In the meantime, Kapanen doesn’t plan on watching the Leafs on TV or running through the potential scenarios in his mind.
“You know, I really don’t like to look into the future too much,” he said. “I’m not that type of guy. I just wake up in the morning and show up to the rink and I have a great time with the boys.