Kapanen trade sets Maple Leafs up for more moves this off-season

Leafs traded Kapanen to the Penguins for a 1st-round pick in a 6-player deal. Shawn McKenzie & Chris Johnston explain why Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger, and which defenceman could be on Toronto's radar (hint: Alex Pietrangelo).

TORONTO – The Pittsburgh Penguins land the best player, yet the Toronto Maple Leafs may well have won the trade.

The hockey world knew Kyle Dubas would be trading from his middle-class forwards, and Kasperi Kapanen brings a youthful injection of speed that could benefit the Penguins’ mission to contend again as soon as possible.

From the Maple Leafs’ perspective, the key to this ice-breaking transaction between two underachieving franchises with high expectations is twofold: a first-round pick, and the freedom to dive into further trades and explore an unprecedented free agency landscape.

This is Dubas’s move to make a move. The shed before the add.

“Certainly, I don’t think this is going to be it for us as we go along,” Dubas said Tuesday evening. “We wanted this (cap) flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades.”

How the executive, now taking direct heat for the first time in his tenure, uses that pick and that cap space to build around his core will be even more intriguing.

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In Kapanen, the Leafs deal from a source of depth and the Penguins reacquire the 2014 first-rounder they let go as the prime prospect in the Phil Kessel blockbuster of 2015 — and Jim Rutherford’s first draftee as Pittsburgh GM.

Next to Toronto, no organization knows the player as well, and Kapanen will be given a chance to thrive next to an elite centre under a sturdy leadership group.

“Kasperi is a good, young player that brings speed to our lineup and plays the way we want to play,” Rutherford said. “We know him as a player and feel he can improve our top six.”

Kapanen said he was “super excited” to learn of the trade from Dubas on Tuesday morning and has already considered the honour of joining the wing of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

“Just means that I’ve gotta hit the gym soon and start working hard for next year. I want to be great, and I want to come into camp ready to go and show everybody that I’m not messing around,” Kapanen said on a conference call.

“A lot of friends on that team, too, so it makes it a whole lot easier than going to a new team and a new city that I’m not familiar with.”

The speedy 24-year-old struggled to find his niche or score a playoff goal under new coach Sheldon Keefe. He registered just two assists in the qualification round versus Columbus and the Blue Jackets’ third line so overmatched Toronto’s that Dubas is wasting little time to rejig the mix.

During pandemic roster-planning, cost certainty is more critical than ever.

Kapanen’s contract carries two more seasons at a $3.2-million cap hit, but the good news for Rutherford is that Toronto already paid a disproportionate amount of his salary by front-loading his three-year extension last summer.

That pact was inked after Kapanen’s breakout 20-goal, 44-point campaign in which he also proved to be a useful penalty killer. Kapanen credited the Leafs development team Tuesday for molding him into a better two-way player.

But little momentum and goodwill from 2018-19 transferred to 2019-20.

“Bit of a sophomore slump. Puck wasn’t going in for me,” Kapanen said. “Overall, my game was very iffy. Something I wasn’t too happy with. I thought I tried to get it back for the playoffs. Me and, I feel, our team could’ve done a lot better.

“So, it’s kind of a bad way to end things with the team, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity they gave me for these past five years.”

Kapanen, a natural right-winger, struggled when injuries forced him to skate the left flank and he failed his opportunity to seize a top-six role. Aggravating the situation was his public wrist-slapping and one-game, team-issued suspension for what Kapanen described as an isolated incident of sleeping in and missing practice.

“I think we’re a pretty forgiving place when things happen,” Keefe said of the benching at the time. “Things happen all the time. When there’s a pattern of things that haven’t corrected themselves, then you have to do something a little bit outside of what you normally would do.”

Although Kapanen did enjoy an uptick in impact later in the season, finishing with 13 goals and 36 points in 69 games, he was ultimately deemed an expendable asset in Dubas’s quest to crawl back into a well-regarded draft, upgrade a thin blue line and shift some payroll to an under-equipped back end.

Under a flattened $81.5-million cap ceiling, Dubas has given his organization an extra $3.2 million in wiggle room and regained a valuable 2020 first-round pick (15th overall) to manoeuvre through a hectic off-season. (Remember, Dubas traded away his original 2020 first-rounder, now 13th overall, to the Carolina Hurricanes in order to rid the club of Patrick Marleau’s contract.)

“We’re open, certainly, to keeping the pick, but I think the spot that we’re at with our team right now, we’re also open probably to moving it if the right deal came along for someone that could that could help us now,” Dubas said.

“There’s players at every position — forward, defence and goalie — that are that are of interest to us at that spot.”

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To complete the deal, the Leafs also waved goodbye to journeyman winger Pontus Aberg and 23-year-old right-shot defence prospect Jesper Lindgren. The 2015 fourth-rounder is still on the come-up, posting nine points and a plus-five rating as a rookie for an underwhelming Toronto Marlies squad in 2019-20.

While the cap space and first-round pick — Dubas’s starting point in the shopping of Kapanen — are the major wins here, the additional pieces moving from Pittsburgh to Toronto are intriguing.

Forward Evan Rodrigues, 27, is an impending restricted free agent with arbitration rights and would need to be qualified at a $2-million salary. With Dubas trying to clear space, that feels doubtful.

“Depth is something we really have to be careful about,” Dubas said. “That’s why it was important for us to have Rodrigues in the deal as well and begin to have a conversation with his representatives about the opportunity that may be here for him.”

Centre Filip Hallander is a 20-year-old prospect being groomed in his native Sweden and a talent the Leafs have been keeping tabs on well before Pittsburgh scooped him in the second round of 2018.

And defenceman David Warsofsky, 30, is a stay-at-home depth type who hasn’t played in the NHL since he appeared in 16 games for the 2017-18 Colorado Avalanche.

Dubas is entertaining all options open at this point. The GM is not ruling out further off-season trades from the roster, and he’ll also consider letting some of his newfound cap space accrue during the season in order to be a more aggressive player at the 2021 deadline.

One thing to be sure: Though the removal of Kapanen weakens Toronto’s roster today, the trade is merely Step 1 in Dubas’s reload.

“What this exercise shows us is that our players have good value around the league,” Dubas said, “and we could accrue solid assets in return for them should we elect to do so.”

He’s just getting warm.

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