Maple Leafs’ Kapanen proving he belongs in top-six role

Kasperi Kapanen scored twice as the Maple Leafs beat the visiting Kings 4-1.

TORONTO – As the young, freewheeling Toronto Maple Leafs core cleared out their lockers in the spring of 2017, disappointed yet encouraged by the first of many trips to the post-season since winning the Auston Matthews lottery, we shared a few minutes with a quiet Kasperi Kapanen — the only tangible asset remaining from those scorched-earth, multi-player trades of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.

Kapanen, a late-March AHL call-up that spring, had impressed as a fourth-line energy guy in a six-game, nail-biting series against the Washington Capitals. He’d scored twice in Game 2, including the double-OT winner.

As he packed his bags, we asked if he could envision cracking the Leafs’ top six the following fall.

His eyes scanned the nameplates on the dressing room’s circumference.

“Looking at the guys in this room, the talent we have, top six, I don’t think I belong there, to be honest,” Kapanen said.

The comment was harsh and humble and rare coming from the mouth a professional athlete. These guys run on confidence, often manifested in word before deed.

But the speedy winger was correct.

Kapanen didn’t even make the Leafs lineup out of camp in 2017-18, partly because he could slide back to the farm system without a waiver hassle. And he’d need to wait 18 months for a real top-six shot and his next two-goal NHL game.

That would be Monday night, when Kapanen opened and closed the scoring in Toronto’s 4-1 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Kings.

Filling in for a close friend, the unsigned William Nylander, on the Leafs’ top line centred by Auston Matthews and flanked on the left side by Patrick Marleau, Kapanen banked one off goalie Jack Campbell 46 seconds after puck drop from behind the net.

“I practise that every day. It’s a tough bounce. I don’t know the last time I’ve ever given one of those up,” lamented Campbell, who got scorched by Kapanen again late, when the nifty Finn orchestrated a give-and-go with Matthews and tucked a beauty backhand-shelf.

“Man, they kinda have it all, to be honest. They’re quick. They transition the puck really well, and they’re creative. You think they’re going to shoot, then they slide it back side or something. They’re a pretty talented group.”

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Hockey’s hottest line features two probable Hall of Famers — yeah, we said it — and one perseverant placeholder.

As recently as a month ago, Kapanen was concerned about even making the cut, let alone the Matthews trio.

“The top two lines are pretty much set. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he worried in September. “I really need to prove to everybody that I belong on the team.”

Kapanen needed 57 regular-season NHL contests to register 10 points.

Since replacing Tyler Ennis on the Matthews line five games ago (all wins), the 22-year-old already has four multi-point efforts. This one came against a difficult head-to-head matchup against L.A.’s top line, headed by reigning Selke champ Anze Kopitar, and a steady dose of Norris winner Drew Doughty.

“It’s not just Auston,” said Kapanen, visibly emotional at the snap success of his promotion, “but it’s also Patty.

“Playing with those two, it’s amazing. It feels easy, and it’s just clicking right now. I’m just enjoying it right now and trying to get better day by day. I know we have a couple of notches still left.”

Kapanen’s eight points in five games as Matthews’ wingman are more than Nylander has been able to rack up in any such stretch over two seasons.

“Every game we’ve kind of been able to just develop more and more chemistry and found each other,” Matthews said. “It’s been fun playing with him.”

Need something to stress about, Leafs Nation? Like Matthews and Mitch Marner, Kapanen also becomes a restricted free agent on July 1.

If Nylander signs before Thursday, we’re not saying he won’t get his old spot back.

We are saying that one of Nylander or Kapanen could add some offensive juice to Nazem Kadri’s third line. We’re seven games deep, and the 30-goal centre is still looking for his first of the season.

“You’ve got to be ready for your opportunity in life when it comes along,” said coach Mike Babcock. “His three years previous and the work he has put in, how much stronger he’s gotten, more poised, he’s taking advantage of it, you’ve got to give him credit.

“He’s scoring at an unbelievable rate, but he’s physical and he’s fast and he’s tenacious. That line has been good, and they were playing against good players tonight.”

Babcock has challenged Kapanen to play more like Zach Hyman, the coach’s posterboy for grinding puck retrieval.

“Kappy’s a great player and he’s got elite speed and great hands, so if he goes and does that stuff as well — and he’s shown he can do it — then he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Hyman says.

“He’s putting it all together. I’ve been playing with him for a while now, with the Marlies too, and to see his game grow has been exciting.”

Thing is, Kapanen has hands to match his tenacity, and his greatest asset — speed — is fast becoming the most desirable trait in a league hammering its foot on the pedal.

“The obvious thing is the fact he’s the fastest person on Earth,” goalie Garret Sparks noted.

And, on this night, maybe the happiest too.

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