The Leafs gambled internally on a winger to play alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner atop their defacto 1A line. So far, so bad as Kasperi Kapanen has struggled mightily to get anything going.
Play the grinder role flanking John Tavares and Mitch Marner – could there be an easier perceived role than this in the NHL? The gig looks to be tailormade for any NHLer to get in there, forecheck hard, and get gifted points and +/- from the awfully talented linemates beside you. But, alas, it’s never that simple in the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is it?
RFA signee Kasperi Kapanen was chosen to flip wings and fill this role with Zach Hyman out rehabbing a knee injury and so far it hasn’t been pretty for him or his linemates.
Statistically speaking, it’s not even an argument either through the first five games:
Mitch Marner: 5 points (3 power play points), -2
John Tavares: 3 points (2 power play points), -1
Kasperi Kapanen: 0 points, -4
Yes, Marner and Tavares are getting the power play opportunities and their points total shows that, but Kapanen having no points and registering a -4 is the real story here. It is an unmitigated disaster heading into the second week of the NHL season and needs to be addressed ASAP.
Luckily, the rest of the division is off to a weird start as well, with Buffalo sitting atop the Atlantic standings and Tampa Bay and Boston sitting 6th and 4th in the division either due to poor starts (Tampa Bay) or lack of games (Boston, two games played).
Options for Replacement
There are options for the Leafs to consider, however, and they are already on the roster! Ilya Mikheyev and Trevor Moore. Last season it was Connor Brown who was getting the call-up minutes to the top-six until Moore and Ennis outplayed him regularly. With both Brown and Ennis gone, Moore and Mikheyev should get the initial looks.
Moore is the lynchpin to this whole plan because playing Kapanen on his offwing has been a huge part of this plan’s failure. Last season, Moore flopped wings often when he moved up and down the lineup and shouldn’t see a dip in his form, judging by his all-over-the-ice performances this season.
Mikheyev, however, should get the first look. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s a good enough skater, he has a shot, he has great hands, he can play in close to the net, he’s a natural leftwinger and most importantly he is talented at recovering the puck. While Moore may look the perfect replacement for Hyman visually, Mikheyev has shone when helping the bottom-six dominate forechecks by never giving up on the play and using his huge reach to interrupt breakout plays.
Either option is a better choice than Kapanen right now who has been dragging down his linemates. It isn’t his fault because he’s not on his natural side and is miscast as a grinder over sniper. Settle him down by getting him in less-tense situations, and park Mikheyev in front of the net to screen and jab at loose pucks. The personnel has shown itself here, and Kapanen doesn’t fit the Hyman mold as Moore or Mikheyev will.