TORONTO – Kasperi Kapanen has been competing against William Nylander in international competitions since they were 16 years old.
When he scored the golden goal for Finland at the 2016 world junior tournament, he jumped around the ice at Hartwall Arena with the likes of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho and Mikko Rantanen.
So as the 21-year-old winger surveys the landscape at the dawn of a new hockey season, it’s understandable why he might be feeling a little left behind. An increasing number of his peers are climbing the ranks in the NHL while he prepares to get back on the buses in the American Hockey League.
“I think it’s all natural,” Kapanen’s father, Sami, said in an interview. “The young players, they compare themselves all the time with the other players at the same age or a year or two (apart). They’re kind of like: ‘OK, well he’s playing there, why am I not playing here?’
“They can get confused and lose the mindset.”
There was no mistaking his son’s disappointment on Thursday after the Toronto Maple Leafs were separated into two groups at training camp and he found himself skating with the AHLers. It wasn’t a surprise given the organization’s glut of forwards, but it was confirmation that he’ll almost certainly be part of the Marlies when the regular season opens next week.
Sami Kapanen sees the situation from all angles.
As a father, he obviously wants what’s best for his son. But as a veteran of more than 800 NHL games, he knows that it often takes longer than you expect to break through. And as a coach now himself with KalPa Kuopio in the Finnish league, he understands why those in charge of a hockey team tend to lean on established players.
That’s why Sami urges Kasperi to focus only on what he can control: Working tirelessly to become an indispensable part of the organization.
“You’ve got to find a way to get in the lineup,” said Kapanen. “A lot of times you get into a lineup, into a roster, playing in the bottom lines. Kind of like two-way hockey, starting as a grinder. Hopefully get some PK time and win the coaching staff on your side and make them believe in your ability to play in the defensive places.”
It’s an unfamiliar position for someone who became a first-round draft pick on the strength of incredibly strong skating and offensive flair. However, Kapanen made huge strides on the defensive side of the puck in the AHL last season before getting called up by the Leafs in March – just in time to score his first NHL goal against Pittsburgh on the night they clinched a playoff spot and two more, including the overtime winner, in Game 2 of the first round against Washington.
He’s simply on the wrong side of a numbers game now.
The addition of free-agent Patrick Marleau gave the Leafs eight forwards who scored at least 18 goals last season. That doesn’t include role players like Zach Hyman, Leo Komarov, Miro Aaltonen, Dominic Moore, Matt Martin or Josh Leivo.
While Sami Kapanen makes a point of not talking about hockey too much during phone conversations with Kasperi – “I’m trying to be more the father” – he understands that there’s probably some underlying frustration. It took until age 22 before he got his own chance to play in the NHL.
“I think that’s probably the hardest thing for young kids – to stay patient,” said Sami. “I think they just want to show the world what they’re capable of. They want to score goals, they want to put up the numbers and kind of make the name for yourself. You’ve got to understand that a lot of these young kids, they grew up piling up points and playing all the offensive situations and carrying the team and being relied on to score the winning goal or making the plays.
“You’re coming to NHL, you’re facing the players that they’ve been playing there up through the years. Players that have all the same tools, but they have all the experience of playing in the NHL. They are probably physically more capable.”
The strong bond between father and son should ultimately help this situation. At five-foot-eight, it took Sami Kapanen years to get a NHL team to believe in him. He was passed over in the entry draft four times before winning a gold medal at the 1995 IIHF World Hockey Championship and getting taken by Hartford in the fourth round.
Then on the first day of his first training camp with the Whalers, Kapanen slipped as Gerald Diduck threw an open-ice hit and the impact led to severe bleeding around his brain, neck and spinal cord.
Kapanen spent a few weeks in bed before undergoing rehab. “The worst time of my hockey life,” he says now. Once healthy, he wound up bouncing between the AHL and NHL a couple times before enjoying a 12-year run with the Whalers, Hurricanes and Flyers.
It’s a journey Kasperi is familiar with.
“I’ve had some ups and downs,” he told reporters this week. “Just looking at my dad’s career and how he got to the NHL, mine’s nothing compared to his. I just try to push myself each and every day and kind of be like him.”
Once the sting of his expected demotion wears off, he’ll be able to look at the situation more clearly. Mike Babcock has made it clear that the makeup of the Leafs won’t be finalized in his mind until the second month of the season.
There’s going to be changes and, inevitably, some injuries.
Sami Kapanen believes his son benefitted from the 14 games he played for the Leafs in the spring and will be more than ready when the elusive opportunity finally appears again.
“I think he’s set his mind on making the lineup this year,” said Kapanen. “He showed up there way earlier than usual (in August) – he wanted to get the workouts done over there, get skating, get to be with the guys and kind of showing that he’s committed to making the team.
“I think this is the year that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get in the lineup and that’s the way it should be with the younger players.”