Quick Shifts: ‘For sure’ Kasperi Kapanen is the fastest Maple Leaf

Patrik Laine and Nathan MacKinnon keep scoring, Duchene and Marchand show off great hands while Gaudreau and JVR have a nose for the net.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. Is Kasperi Kapanen the fastest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

“I think so, for sure,” Nazem Kadri says.

“It’s kinda unbelievable how he comes from a standstill to full speed within just a few strides. He’s got that gift, that natural skating ability, and he knows how to use it.”

To be fair, we posed this loaded question to Kadri Saturday night, just minutes after Kapanen accepted a pretty, banked stretch pass from fellow AHL call-up Travis Dermott with skates a-flash and shifted from fourth gear to sixth, dusting Canadiens rookie defender Noah Juulsen and burning Charlie Lindgren on the breakaway.

Not your typical fourth-line play.

“I don’t think teams really know what I’m capable of. That’s why I try to use my speed and surprise them and make those plays,” said Kapanen, who has already scored seven big-league goals despite his fixture on the Leafs’ fourth unit.

“It doesn’t matter what line I play on. I’m always going to try to use my speed to create chances and make plays. I’m just happy to be here. It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NHL. I watched my dad play for a long time. Me finally getting into the roster here, it’s a good feeling.”

To the surprise of no one, the 21-year-old credits genetics for his speed. Father Sami’s fleet feet helped him last 831 games in the bigs.

Sami twice won the NHL’s Fastest Skater event (2000, 2002), and once completed a lap in 12.7 seconds.

Much like Leafs teammate William Nylander, Kapanen grew up in the NHL bubble. But Sami’s branch of the family tree can’t take all the credit.

“It’s in the genes, for sure. He used to skate pretty well back in his days. My mom [Petra] did track and field, and she was pretty good at that too, so I for sure got it from both parents,” Kapanen says. “She did track-and-field, a bunch of events, for a long time. Then she started dating my dad. She gave it up at some point and had to stay home when I popped out.”

Kapanen is getting razzed by veterans like Tyler Bozak, speaks regularly with coach Mike Babcock regarding areas of improvement, and — after failing to make the cut out of camp — now feels like one of the boys.

“That’s a big thing — for a young guy to come in and get comfortable so you’re allowed to be yourself and express yourself. When you’re on the ice, you feel comfortable and you want to make plays,” Kapanen says. “For me, it’s been really fun. It’s been easy.”

Not unlike the uphill climb of a roster fixture like Morgan Rielly, Kapanen is more likely to see PK minutes than PP time, but a more offensive role only feels like a matter of time. Soon, he won’t be catching opponents off-guard.

“He gets going, especially on the breakout if you give him some space and you don’t bump him, he’s jumping by you,” Kadri says. “In order for him to make an impact, he has to just keep skating.”

2. Victor Hedman’s unusual and mildly dangerous pre-game ritual (watch below) involves Tampa Bay Lightning assistant equipment manager Rob Kennedy spreading his fingers on the dasher and letting the Norris candidate play a little five-finger fillet with his stick.

“It’s something we started doing five or six years ago and we’ve just kept it up,” Hedman told NHL.com.

“I’m not really superstitious but it’s just something I like to do before the game. I’ve hit his fingers a few times and maybe his face once, but Rob’s a tough guy. He can take it.”

Bonus! Here’s the self-proclaimed world’s fastest five-finger fillet. No, thanks.

3. A year ago, Mason Marchment was plying his trade with the Maple Leafs’ farm team’s farm team. Lighting it up with the Orlando Solar Bears in 2016-17 earned the undrafted left wing a shot to stick on a highly-competitive Toronto Marlies squad this season, and things couldn’t be turning out better for the 23-year-old son of retired NHLer Bryan Marchment.

With 23 points and a plus-13 rating, Marchment’s numbers are better than those of more familiar Marlies rookies like Jeremy Bracco and Adam Brooks.

Considering the likelihood of two left wingers, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov, leaving the organization this summer, Marchment should be one of several young bodies battling for Babcock’s attention at training camp next fall.

“Just excitement. I’ve been working towards it my whole life. I was a late bloomer, so it’s a huge achievement for me,” Marchment told reporters of the contract. “It’s an achievement, but I just want to keep on working.”

4. Tomas Plekanec insisted he didn’t want to “make a big deal” about facing his pals on the Montreal Canadiens for the first time as a Leaf, so it was nice to see him honoured in the subtlest of ways.

Babcock made a point of putting him out to take the opening draw (an unusual task for the fourth-line centre at home), and four Canadiens — Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry, Jacob De La Rose and Artturi Lehkonen – sported mock tribute turtlenecks during warm-ups.

Plekanec downplayed the emotional aspect of the game both before and after. “First couple shifts were obviously a little awkward” is all he allowed.

He’s a much more low-key cat than Toronto’s 2017 fourth-line centre rental, Brian Boyle, who breathed intensity and generously dished out quotables.

“I wouldn’t call him shy,” Plekanec’s linemate, Kapanen, considers. “He does like to let his actions speak. I’ve seen him laughing and smiling around the room, and that’s good to see.”

5. I love that the Southern Professional Hockey League is boldly testing the pick-your-opponent playoff model this spring.

The regular season’s top seed gets first choice from seeds 5 through 8, the second seed gets second pick, and so on. Chances are, if such a format was introduced to the NHL, the 1 seed would pick 8. Don’t ruffle feathers.

But what if the lowest seed available destroyed you in the regular season, or was red-hot entering the playoffs? What if the fifth seed had just lost its star player to injury? Picking your opponent would add a layer of strategy and intrigue.

The argument against it: You don’t want to motivate your opponent by providing bulletin-board material. But, c’mon, shouldn’t teams be motivated enough by any do-or-die series?

“I immediately knew this was the greatest idea I’d ever heard,” said SPHL president Jim Combs (via Associated Press), who borrowed the concept from Austria’s Erste Bank Eishockey Liga.

“The person at the top earns the right to pick the weakest of the bottom four. He can base it on travel, he can base it on difficulty of opponent, how the guy has been playing the past three or four weeks. A lot of times, you don’t want the eighth-place team because that’s the guy who has hustled and played hard and put the team together the last two or three weeks of the season. That’s the hot team.”

Imagine the money and marketing opportunities if the NHL were to go this route and broadcast a Playoff Foe Draft Extravaganza. Hey, Gary Bettman wants to stir rivalries…

Sounds farfetched, but so did 3-on-3 OT, which may be the NHL’s most exciting tweak since the forward pass.

“In 2004, when we started 3-on-3 overtime, everyone laughed at us and said, ‘Hey, this will never happen at the top level,'” Combs said. “We played it for 10 years and the NHL adopted it, they’re playing it, they revamped the all-star game. They have totally embraced it. Will the NHL take this? They might. I don’t know why after all this excitement every sport wouldn’t do it.”

6. Goal of the Week (Non–Sidney Crosby Division) goes to Nikita Tertyshny of Russia, Chelyabinsk.

And here’s the Crosby goal because you deserve to start your weekend happy.

7. Nathan MacKinnon won my Hart Trophy vote at the season’s halfway point, and with the Colorado Avalanche 76 per cent certain of securing a playoff spot, there’s an 76 per cent chance MacKinnon will rank first on my final ballot. The guy leads his team in goals, assists and points (92), and has a better points-per-game average than Art Ross leader Nikita Kucherov. MacKinnon also tops all NHLers in game-winners with 11.

Kucherov, John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos rounded out my rough draft in January, and all but Kucherov should be replaced. Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin’s chances are tied into their playoff fates. Aleksander Barkov is my dark horse.

Evgeni Malkin is a lock for the Fox 5. Ditto Anze Kopitar, who has 31 more points than the next productive King (Drew Doughty).

Not enough is being said about Kopitar. The guy has crushed a new personal best in points (86) and, with Thursday’s four-goal display, surpassed 30 goals for the first time in eight years. All the more remarkable considering the load he’s had to shoulder and his 12-goal disappointment in 2016-17.

8. Something to watch, especially in light of Matt Murray’s spotty health, is which one of the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ young, inexperienced backups grabs a backup role that almost inevitably becomes a crucial one in any long playoff journey.

Twenty-six-year-old Casey DeSmith — the Pens goaltending greybeard who out-duelled Carey Price Wednesday — has the better save percentage (.913).

Twenty-two-year-old Tristan Jarry — the presumed favourite — has the better record (14-6-2) and a pair of shutouts.

Each has seen action in a handful of games this month. Head coach Mike Sullivan won’t tip his hand as to which one he’s leaning toward, saying he believes either Jarry or DeSmith gives Pittsburgh a chance to win.

9. Tight playoff race predictions time.

In: Philadelphia, Florida | Colorado, Los Angeles, Anaheim

Out: New Jersey | Dallas, St. Louis

10. A stray observation for those of you who care about hockey nicknames, which should be all of you.

Auston Matthews‘ teammates used to always abbreviate his name to “Matty.”

Increasingly, I’ve noticed, the name of the Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 centre has been shortened even further. He’s now simply “Mats.”

Hmmmm.

11. Team Canada could dress a ridiculously deep group at the IIHF World Championship this May in Denmark as it goes for its third gold medal in the past four years.

Connor McDavid — Oilers teammate Oscar Klefbom spilled in a Swedish interview this week — is planning to attend, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is leaning that way as well.

Think of the other star power available: Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Carey Price, Duncan Keith, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Jeff Skinner, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman…

As the Dallas Stars continue to free fall, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin could be available, too. Scoring should not be an issue.

With the NHLers sitting out February’s Winter Games, and a chance for players to kick off their summer with a work vacation in Copenhagen, will that boost participation in the tournament?

Well over 250,000 tickets have already been sold to the event.

“As a player it means a lot, that we can look forward to such an enormous support and that all our preliminary games will be played in a sold-out venue in Jyske Bank Boxen in Herning, it’s amazing,” said Red Wings forward Frans Nielsen, eyeing a return to his hometown.

“It’s no secret that Herning has a very special place in my heart, and I’m really looking forward to it all.”

12. The thing about firing Joel Quenneville — if the Chicago Blackhawks do go that route after missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade – is that he has as much or more term on his existing contract (two seasons beyond this one) than all but six NHL bench bosses.

Quenneville is a winner, though. Firing him after you clear out his assistants, trade away Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin (68 points and counting for surging Columbus), lose Marian Hossa to a skin disorder, and watch Corey Crawford succumb to injury after a Vezina-calibre first third of the season feels like misplaced blame, to say the least.

Does Coach Q want to stay with? That’s the big question.

Perhaps we see more of an amicable split, and Quenneville lasts about as long on the unemployment line as Claude Julien did in 2017.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.