TORONTO – Kasperi Kapanen has his mind made up.
He no longer wants any part of life in the American Hockey League, even though it’s been pretty good to play for the powerhouse Marlies. He’s a young man whose found a higher calling and, finally, a permanent role with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He looks like a good player to me,” head coach Mike Babcock said after Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout win over Nashville. “He’s come here, we win, he’s made a difference – flat-out made a difference. We can come at you faster with more people, he’s penalty killing every night and doing a good job for us.
“I think he’s important.”
It has been a process.
The 21-year-old is on his eighth NHL recall over the last three seasons in what can charitably be described as a test of patience. The Leafs have kept a glass ceiling above his head because of an enviable amount of organizational depth on the wing.
Any lingering doubt about this being Kapanen’s breakthrough was arguably wiped away during a determined six-second stretch against the Predators. Down a man, he cleared the puck from his zone over a diving P.K. Subban and managed to corral it at centre ice despite being in the heavy-legs portion of a shift.
“It was a good move, but a little bit of a lucky bounce,” said teammate Leo Komarov, with a fatherly chuckle.
Babcock has played Kapanen in favour of veteran Matt Martin for the last two weeks and won’t be taking him out any time soon. You could tell he’d truly gained the coach’s trust when he was given a coveted shift during the 3-on-3 overtime period against Nashville.
“He used to be a skinny little kid and now he’s got some meat on his bones and he has worked hard at it,” Babcock said, when asked what’s changed about Kapanen. “Then, obviously, experience, and experience makes you compete a little harder on a nightly basis because you don’t want to go back [to the AHL] anymore. That’s a great thing about earning your way and being in the minors and riding the bus and learning what it’s like.
“It makes you not want to go back there. I think that helps out. I also think getting here when you’re ready and not before you’re ready helps you stay and helps you keep your confidence.”
The biggest differentiator ultimately arrived last season when Kapanen embraced the challenge of killing penalties for the Marlies. He’d never done that in his life. He’s always had lightning speed and an offensive touch, but this gave him an extra tool that could be of use to the Leafs.
Kapanen has seen a regular shift with a man down during his current seven-game run with the NHL team. He’s essentially bumped Dominic Moore out of the job.
Looking back now, he can laugh at the trepidation he had when first told that he’d be used in 4-on-5 situations.
“I’ve never done it before, right?” said Kapanen. “I played back home [in Finland] for a bit and obviously it’s a different league, but they didn’t want me killing penalties. My first year here I didn’t kill any penalties and then coming in [last] year they told me that they wanted me to start doing this.
“I think it’s a natural reaction to kind of not know what to expect, but it’s been lots of fun.”
His emergence has put the Leafs in a position where they’re going to need to do some juggling. It likely means that one of Martin, Josh Leivo or Nikita Soshnikov – currently with the Marlies on a conditioning loan – aren’t long for the Leafs roster.
As harsh as that is from a personal standpoint, it’s exactly the kind of competition the organization has hoped to create. Kapanen’s seen the other side of it, too, after scoring some big playoff goals for the Leafs last spring but getting sent back to the Marlies out of training camp.
That time in the AHL has helped prepare him to steal a job now – as evidenced by the short-handed goal that helped the overmatched Leafs steal two points from Nashville on Wednesday. It’s exactly the kind of thing Babcock envisioned when he pushed Kapanen to round out his game more than a year ago.
“I just said, ‘That’s the way you’re going to play in the National Hockey League.”’ Babcock recalled. “You’re not playing on the power play, you better figure out how to make yourself important.”
There’s no looking back now.
“He’s been really good,” said Komarov. “He’s got a lot of energy. He’s a great player, he just needed to keep waiting.”