TORONTO — We were still very much focused on the why’s and what’s some 40-plus hours after Kasperi Kapanen’s sacrificial scratch, but it’s really the how that matters most here.
As in how the Toronto Maple Leafs chose to handle the 23-year-old winger after he reported late for Friday’s practice.
Remember that this is an organization as deliberate as it is well staffed. Every decision is weighed carefully and thought out. So it was not by happenstance that the Leafs surprisingly sat Kapanen against the Ottawa Senators, had head coach Sheldon Keefe provide next to no insight into that decision following the 2-1 overtime victory and then rolled the player out for the media Monday morning to explain how he ended up missing his first game of the season.
That back-and-forth was about as awkward as you might expect, with Kapanen veering from emotional to combative while fielding multiple questions on his tardiness.
“Listen guys if you guys want to talk about hockey I’m all for it,” he said at one point. “So talk about today or the future, that’s fine. But I overslept and that’s that.”
Except the entire situation hardly feels open and shut.
For starters, there was really no unified front or consistent messaging on how things escalated to this point.
Kapanen’s very public punishment is obviously the cumulative result of previous transgressions, but it’s not clear what those were — with the player copping to having “missed or been late to practice a couple times” during his days in the American Hockey League and Keefe, his former Marlies coach, saying he had no recollection of that happening.
Instead, Keefe pointed to previous incidents involving Kapanen in the NHL both during his time behind the Leafs bench and before he succeeded Mike Babcock in the role.
“I think we’re a pretty forgiving place when things happen,” Keefe said. “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.”
The Leafs coach wouldn’t reveal what time Kapanen was supposed to report for practice Friday, but it couldn’t have been too onerous — especially since the team was coming off a travel day home from Dallas. They were scheduled to take the ice at noon and players typically arrive at the practice rink no later than an hour before then.
Kapanen skated with his Leafs teammates that afternoon so there was no hint to reporters that anything was amiss until he was replaced by Dmytro Timashov in the warmup immediately before Saturday’s game.
“It was just an honest mistake,” said Kapanen. “I was late to practice that day on Friday and they felt like sitting me out was something I deserved and I agree. So I’ve just got to take responsibility for that.”
If this is part of a concerning pattern of behaviour, you can understand why the Leafs chose to make an example of Kapanen rather than, say, issuing him a fine or punishing him behind closed doors.
There’s a certain amount of embarrassment tied to this even if Kapanen indicated that his scratch wasn’t followed by a period of introspection.
“I mean I just overslept, I don’t really know what there is to think about,” he said. “Obviously I don’t want my teammates to think that I’m not serious about this or whatnot. They sat me out and that’s it.”
In the larger picture, it’s fair to wonder about what this means for his long-term future with the organization. Nazem Kadri got things on track after a team-imposed, three-game suspension following a missed practice in March 2015, but he never fully regained the trust of his superiors before getting traded to Colorado last summer.
Kapanen’s name has already been mentioned in trade rumours because of the Leafs forward depth. He’s also seen a reduced role under Keefe, going from averaging 17:05 per game under Babcock to 15:08 since that coaching change.
While he doesn’t think this incident will compromise his standing inside the organization — “Nope. No,” he answered when asked directly about that — it’s hard to imagine the Leafs remaining patient with him if they don’t see some changes.
For it’s not the scratch alone that tells us Kapanen is skating toward thin ice here, but the way his bosses left him to clean up the mess he made.
“I’m a grown man and I know what I did was wrong,” he said before Monday’s game against Florida. “I’ve just got to live up to it, and just forget about it, and just get back at it.”