Kasperi Kapanen still fighting to carve out role with Maple Leafs

Toronto-Maple-Leafs-forward-Kasperi-Kapanen

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen, left, checks Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Markus Nutivaara during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. (Paul Vernon/AP)

CHICAGO – As difficult as it might be to remember now, Kasperi Kapanen was there when the Toronto Maple Leafs officially kicked off their youth movement.

He was called up from the American Hockey League alongside William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov on Feb. 29, 2016 and each of them made their NHL debuts that night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This was before Connor Brown had even played a game for the Leafs. Before Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev were in the NHL.

They’ve all become core members of Mike Babcock’s team, and Kapanen is still fighting to carve out a role.

"Kappy’s a guy that we all believe is going to play in the National Hockey League a long time," said Babcock. "He probably believes he should be on the team, but it’s just one of those things. We’ll give him an opportunity."

The speedy winger will dress for his 30th career NHL game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night. This is his seventh different AHL recall and may not extend beyond this weekend’s all-star break.

There’s only so much he can do because of the veteran players ahead of him. Kapanen scored two goals in three games during a December cameo with the big club and was still sent right back to the AHL Marlies.

He’s cognizant of the fact that history could repeat itself again.

"It’s not in my control," said Kapanen. "The only thing I can control is how I play and I just want to do everything I can to bring some energy and bring my speed and use that to my advantage. We’ll see."

The reason he’s back now is because Babcock wants a quicker lineup and hopes to be able to consistently roll four lines. The move required the Leafs coach to scratch Matt Martin for just the second time in his NHL career – which suggests that Kapanen’s immediate future may be tied to the organization’s willingness to continue sitting out a veteran with a $2.5-million cap hit and two seasons beyond this one left on his contract.

The key for Kapanen is he needs to play. Still just 21 years old, he’s a 20-minute per game guy with the powerhouse Marlies who produces offence and kills penalties.

"I think part of it is just making sure our players are ready when they arrive," said Babcock. "So, overripe. You don’t want to have a guy here sitting out of the lineup. … We wanted him to put his time in and get way stronger like he has and become a better player and be hungry.

"We think that’s the key to success long term – we put some kids on our team two years ago and then we sent them back to the minors, and then we put them on the team last year. It’s becoming a much harder team to play on as we get much deeper.

"But that’s a positive thing: The longer you can keep your kids in the minors that means the better club you have and the more winning you’re doing."

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Kapanen is the best asset remaining in the organization from the Phil Kessel trade and burns with a quiet intensity when talking about his desire to become a NHL regular.

His father, Sami, believes that has held him back to some degree. Earlier this season, he said in an interview that it’s been difficult for his son not to feel like his peers have left him behind.

"I think it’s all natural," Sami Kapanen told Sportsnet. "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."

Kasperi Kapanen is the third generation of Finnish hockey royalty – his grandfather, Hannu, is a former player and coach enshrined in that country’s Hockey Hall of Fame while Sami played 831 NHL games and now coaches KalPa in the Finnish league – and has plenty of backers inside the Leafs organization.

It’s not a stretch to call him one of the fastest players in the NHL today, which brings a unique dynamic to the fourth line.

He’s also driven positive possession results during his time with the Leafs and scored two of their biggest goals last year – the winner against Pittsburgh to clinch a playoff spot on the last weekend of the regular season, and another against Washington in double-overtime of Game 2 in the first round.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Any disappointment he felt after being cut in training camp in the fall has long since dissipated.

"Well the AHL is not a bad league at all and playing for the Toronto Marlies for the last three years, we’ve been a top contender," said Kapanen. "Every day you’ve got to go to the rink and try to be better, and use that frustration or anger to work even harder.

"I think that’s what I’ve been doing."

Nearly two years on from his NHL debut, he’s back with the big club. Perhaps this time it’ll be for a long time.

"You get that opportunity, you want to put your foot in the door, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for awhile," said Kapanen. "I can just control the way I play and if they want to keep me then they keep me. It’s going to be an interesting couple games here.

"I feel good."

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