DEJAN KOVACEVIC, DK ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS
“We’ve been waiting for someone like him to arrive for a while.”
The scene was Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome, site of the recent Olympics, and the speaker was Sami Salo, the well-traveled NHL veteran defenseman. Team Finland had just skated through its first training session, and Salo had just been paired with Olli Maatta, a partner 20 years his younger.
One set of drills was all it took. Salo felt so strongly about the kid that the above quote was his response to my fairly innocuous question about his first impression of the Penguins’ prized rookie.
“He’s that good,” Salo would say.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, one training camp was all it took for Maatta to upend all of management’s plans in Pittsburgh. He gave Ray Shero, Dan Bylsma and staff no choice but to add him to the roster. None. He was, as Salo might say, that good.
I ran this little tale past Kasperi Kapanen, the Penguins’ recent first-round pick, at the team’s development camp last weekend.
Turns out there was no need.
“Oh, I know all about that. We’ve already talked,” Kapanen said of his fellow Finn. “I know what he did. And I know what I have to do.”
Kapanen could be that good, too. At least if you trust the Penguins’ scouts who had him rated sixth overall on their draft board, then watched in gradually increasing glee as he plummeted all the way to their position at No. 22.
There are times when teams exaggerate their excitement over a player dropping to them. But I saw and heard these guys on the draft floor that weekend in Philadelphia. This was real.
“This young player,” Bill Guerin would tell me a day later, “is going to be special.”
There are skeptics, of course. The guaranteed special types tend not to have 21 teams thinking otherwise. But Kapanen has the skill to fulfill that brand, as well as the poise and pedigree. He’s the 18-year-old son of Sami Kapanen — his birthday was last Wednesday — and he’s coming off a season in which he played alongside his father against Finland’s top men and held his own with seven goals, seven assists in 47 games. At the junior level, he was utterly dominant.
It isn’t hard to see why. At the Penguins’ development camp scrimmage, Kapanen was, as franchise patriarch Eddie Johnston put it while watching from the seat next to mine, “a man among boys.” And no, not just because the organization is pretty much bankrupt at forward. Kapanen was that good. He burst by defenders with a single B-button stride. He stopped on a dime. He used those silky hands to create plays for himself and his linemates, in and out of traffic.
He did everything but fit in.
“It’s all natural,” Johnston said. “Some have it. Some don’t. He’s got a ton of it.”
And then there’s the poise. I could tell you how Kapanen handled wave after wave of interviews all week. Or how he impressed his coaches and teammates. Or, to give an example, how he was the first member of his line to change on the fly after a superlative shift in that scrimmage, even though the puck never left the attacking zone.
But maybe you can just see and hear for yourself …
Looked petrified, didn’t he?
Remind you of anyone in particular?
To paraphrase Salo yet again, the Penguins have been waiting for someone like Kapanen to arrive for a while.
Oh my, how they’ve been waiting.
Stop and think about this: Who was the Penguins’ last impact young forward acquired internally since the blessed draftings of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal?
Anyone at all?
And please, spare me Beau Bennett’s inclusion in this discssion until he displays consistency in any category besides injured reserve.
Kapanen has a chance, and an immediate one at that, not only to singlehandedly address the organization’s most outrageous shortcoming but also to set a spark. A very, very badly needed spark, lest anyone require a Columbus-sized reminder.
Look at that top six right now and, if the puck was set to drop between the Penguins and Ducks, Crosby would again be with Chris Kunitz, who faded badly in the playoffs, and Pascal Dupuis, who’s coming off completely reconstructive knee surgery. Both those wingers will be 35. Malkin will be with newcomer Patric Hornqvist, with no guarantee of chemistry anywhere approaching what was enjoyed with James Neal and … I don’t know, whoever fills in for Bennett.
I like the Hornqvist trade, but don’t tell me that top six instills any great hope of change.
Kapanen’s addition can. He could be that difference. He could be that extra-energy winger that you saw all playoffs long with the Kings in the forms of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. He could be that wild card that scores that big, bonus goal in the biggest of situations.
Understand, I’m not advocating for Kapanen to make the roster unconditionally. He’s got to earn it. That means continuing to add strength, to focus on his backchecking and to — in my estimation, anyway — to make himself more available for passes. There were times in that scrimmage when he’d get lost if he didn’t have the puck. That can’t happen at the NHL level.
But all that’s doable. And it’s been richly encouraging to hear Jim Rutherford and staff state bluntly that Kapanen will, in fact, get to take his best shot.
One morning at Southpoine a year ago, when Maatta’s bid to make the roster was in its infancy, he shared this with me: “I know what they’re telling me. I know what they’re telling you. But I know what I believe, and I believe I’m going to make this team.”
Ran that one by Kapanen, too.
“Yeah, that’s the mindset. That’s how you have to believe in yourself. I think you’ll find I’m a lot like that, too.”
PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX MESSMER, DK ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS