For a hockey fan, the arrival of July 1st means the unofficial start to the coming hockey season. The event sparking this fan interest is the start of the NHL’s annual free agency period, where player movement, or more specifically, rumors of player movement tend to dominate the hockey headlines and the news-hungry Twitterverse.
Hockey players can be hockey fans as well, of course, so even those that have no connection to the events of a particular free agency period can still take an interest in the proceedings. This may even have been the case for Toronto Marlies forward Kasperi Kapanen, who, like fans and other players, may have even followed unfolding events via Twitter as the 2015 NHL free agency period got underway.
But rather than being simply an innocent bystander to the hoopla, Kapanen instead was involved in one of the biggest hockey headlines of that first day, and indeed, of the entire 2015 offseason.
Kapanen, a 2014 first round selection of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs by the Penguins along with forward Nick Spaling, defensive prospect Scott Harrington, and first and third round picks in 2016. Heading back to the Penguins was scoring forward Phil Kessel, prospect Tyler Biggs, and well-traveled defenseman Tim Erixon.
Quite obviously, the marquee player in the deal was Kessel who, despite being a productive player for the Leafs since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in 2009, had fallen out of favor in an organization looking to create a new identity.
No player with a similar resume headed to Toronto, but Kapanen’s status as a first round pick made him the de facto “name” player added to the Leafs’ organization.
For the low-key native of Kuopio, Finland, the view that he was the centerpiece of Toronto’s end of the deal isn’t a view that Kapanen necessarily shares.
“There were other guys in the trade, so it’s not just me getting traded for him,” said Kapanen. “Obviously it was a big trade – it wasn’t something I was expecting, I don’t think anybody was. But the past is the past, and I’m here in Toronto right now and I’m having a blast.”
With the successful start the Marlies have had to their 2015-16 season, it is likely that much of the squad is thoroughly enjoying coming to work these days. The team has played 18 games to date, sporting a 14-3-1-0 record that is good for 29 points and first overall in the American Hockey League. In addition, their 74 goals tops the AHL in that category, a total that is six more than the output of the Texas Stars.
The approach to the game that is being institiuted by Marlies’ first-year head coach Sheldon Keefe has been successful so far, and is one that Kapanen feels suits him well.
“I think our style that we’re playing right now is good, we’re trying to hold on to the puck as much as possible, and I think that’s the right way to play,” said Kapanen of Keefe’s system. “Obviously, I think I need to use my strengths – my skating, and just playing with the puck so I’ll make some plays.”
While Kapanen’s skill with the puck has been his main stock in trade to date, he does not want to be viewed as simply a one-dimensional player.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play some defense,” Kapanen stated when asked of his role with the Marlies. “It’s not just them telling me you need to focus on offense or defense. I want to be as good on defense so they can put me on the ice when there’s only a minute left and we’re ahead by one or something like that. So, I just want to be a good, all-around player.”
The season began slowly for Kapanen, as he missed the first two games due to an illness. Since taking the ice on October 19th for his first regular season action, Kapanen had slowly settled into the Marlies’ lineup. Through his first 10 games, Kapanen produced four goals on 14 shots while posting a +2 rating.
In his 11th game of the season, however, Kapanen may have provided a sign of better things to come as he posted a goal and two assists in a 6-4 Marlies win over the Binghamton Senators.
Kapanen is just one of many players on the Marlies’ roster that Keefe is getting to know in his first season as an AHL head coach. So far, Keefe likes the way the young Finn is fitting into the lineup.
“He’s a guy…that’s finding his legs – he missed the first week of the season with an illness, so those things are tough to bounce back from,” said Keefe. “But I think he’s starting to get his legs back, and starting to kind of find his way within the lineup working in different roles – on the power play, and things like that. So, we’re getting to know him a little bit better and get a feel for what he can bring. He’s another guy I feel like is getting his legs and getting comfortable.”
Kapanen is still just 19 years of age, and would be eligible to play for Finland at the 2016 World Junior Championship being held in Helsinki. While it seems unlikely that this will come to pass, Kapanen nevertheless likes the progress that his country has made at the Under-20 level.
“I think winning the gold two years ago actually kind of got things going a bit, obviously,” said Kapanen of his country’s growing stature at that level of international play. “They had a good team – I wasn’t a part of it, unfortunately – but it was a good team. The reason [for Finland’s improvement]? I don’t know. It just suddenly seems like Finland has been playing pretty good at the Under-20’s. Obviously last year we had a good group but we just didn’t play to our expectations, which was disappointing.
“But every year people in Finland are getting excited because they know they have a good chance to win, so that’s a good sign.”
For now, Kapanen will just focus on the job at hand, namely helping the Marlies win games while working towards his ultimate goal.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here in Toronto,” said Kapanen. “It’s a great organization, it’s really exciting to be a part of. Obviously, being real young and getting traded already comes to you as a shock. But, I started thinking about the trade a little more and I think it was a good trade for me personally, and hopefully my dream will come true that I’ll play in the NHL someday – it’s a long ways to go still – but I’m up to the challenge.”
Follow Hockey’s Future on Twitter via @HockeysFuture