Column: Let’s see Kapanen’s best shot 62

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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?

Exactly.

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

62 thoughts on “Column: Let’s see Kapanen’s best shot”

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  1. Wild Bill says:

    Well, heck. I’ve gotta get to the ‘burgh and see this kid in preseason. Or maybe midseason.

  2. Paul Adomshick says:

    One of the most impressive things when he answers questions is that he gives the right answers, not because he was repeating what the coach was hammering on that day, but because he clearly understands what to do. Big difference between knowing what to do and understanding it.

  3. Eric Bowser says:

    The Penguins not only have a desperate need for a young winger, they have needed someone with a right-handed shot on the left-wing during the power play to force teams to respect that side of the ice and open space for Crosby and Malkin. Stu Barnes was a long long time ago.

  4. Wild Bill says:

    Find myself wondering why he dropped to 22. His age? Pro-Canadian prejudice? His current size?

    1. Dejan Kovacevic says:

      He had injuries that slowed him last season, notably during the World Under-18 tournament that annually gets flooded by scouts.

      1. Wild Bill says:

        So the Pens may have out scouted a bunch of other teams? That has a nice sound to it.

    2. hockeymonster says:

      Out-scouted is a stretch but when #1 euro prospect is there at 22 you gotta atleast consider it. Having him ranked at 6 is probably potential based more than nhl ready based. But he seems more complete of a player than his junior days so if keeps progressing could be factor soon

  5. Kris says:

    I think Kapanen will be a huge part of this team but maybe not this year. People have to remember that Maatta didnt come in the year he was drafted either. If he makes it though

    Kapanen-Crosby-Hornqvist
    Kunitz-Malkin-Bennett
    Spaling-Sutter-Dupuis
    Comeau-Goc-Downie

    1. BillyBaduka says:

      True Maatta didn’t play his first year. But I think there are two things going for Kapanen:

      1 – it usually takes defensemen longer to become NHL ready

      2 – Pens D lineup was much deeper and harder to crack than current F lineup

  6. EyeOnTheBurgh says:

    Love this piece, Dejan. I’m extremely impressed with Kapanen. Also, kudos to Alex Messmer. He’s been an outstanding asset for you so far with the graphics and photoshops.

  7. I noticed how he’d start off on the right wing but as the play developed in the offensive zone he magically ended up on the left side. It happened just about every shift. He seems more comfortable over there.

    1. hockeymonster says:

      He’s comfortable anywhere there’s ice. He needs to get on NA ice asap to get just as comfy along the boards. He may hit ground running but AHL could help alot. Finnish league is a bit passive, especially in NZ. More forecheck pressure in AHL will help develop his skill faster.

      1. Kris says:

        Finland does play with the Hybrid sized ice so its not as wide as the rest of Europe. Either way one more year in Finland or AHL would give him time to bulk up some

      2. hockeymonster says:

        Ya finland isnt bad option in that regard. I think he can be slippery enough on the ice to get by, but do we need him just getting by? Maatta wore down last season and kapanen at 18 will be tough to count on down the stretch. But im stickin with sooner rather than later.

  8. G-Man says:

    Impressive poise for an 18-year-old during that interview. To borrow a phrase from Stuart Scott: “Cool as the other side of the pillow.” Let’s hope that poise translates to on-ice.

  9. Biz says:

    He is that breath of fresh air, that the Pens need right about now

  10. IronWicki says:

    DK…great line. “He burst by defenders with a single B-button stride.” NHL94 best game ever!!!

    1. Dejan Kovacevic says:

      Wondering how many readers will get that. Congrats on being the second!

      1. Ryan says:

        I’m proud to say the NHL 94 theme song is my current ring tone. Great game. I’m looking forward to seeing how Kapanen looks during camp with the full roster.

    2. BrotherhoodoftheRedus says:

      yep….b-button stride indeed. Very nice DK

    3. BillyBaduka says:

      Great line.

  11. Dejan Kovacevic says:

    Let’s see some forward lines here! I know Eric will have his, and HM will have a full dissertation. :) Looking for at least how the top two lines, but preferably all four, would/should be structured by Mike Johnston.

    1. Poole says:

      Kunitz-crosby-marleau (or whoever we get in the Paul martin trade)

      Bennett-malkin-hornqvist
      Spaling-sutter-dupuis
      Comeau-goc-downie

      (Adams in press box doing commercials for Just for Men)

      1. Keith Carlson says:
        -4

        Quit hating on Adams. Guy is solid on and off ice. Great for Pittsburgh.

    2. Opening Night
      Kunitz-Crsoby-Kapanen
      Hornqvist-Malkin-Bennett
      Spaling(?)-Sutter(?)-Dupuis
      Comeau-Goc-Downie
      Scratches Adams/Payerl

      I hope Sutter and Spaling get deals done. But if not things will look a bit different

  12. toddshevchik says:

    Bob Errey is a speedster in NHL93. The year before the “one-timer.”

    1. Dejan Kovacevic says:

      What stunk about the one-timer was that it basically became the only way you could score. There were no other goals, even clean breakaways. Not that I’m still bitter.

      1. BillyBaduka says:

        It did for a while but the classic deke and other goals did come back a few years later.

      2. AJS says:

        You havent met my friend Jim. Never one times. And he is the best NHL 94 player I have seen. Dude had a break away with Kjell and managed 4 dekes on the way to the net and finished. He claims the key to deking in that game is laying off that B button.

  13. Poole says:

    The fact that Kap is a top 6 winger makes it a little tougher. Maatta was able to play bottom-pairing minutes until he took on a bigger role. Kap can’t ease his way in. Pondering whether Kapanen would be elevated by playing with Sid? Or killed playing against top competition?

  14. Biz says:

    In 93, I think we had a Commodore 64 ;-)

    Maybe

    1. BillyBaduka says:

      Good games on that too.

      B17 Bomber comes to mind.

  15. Poole says:

    Sutter and martin are expendable, IMO. Great players..but expendable. If Kap can’t handle it this year, we still need a wing from somewhere. I’d explore every avenue via trade with martin and/or Sutter. Its both a short and long term need. Dupes/Spaling/downie are ideally bot 6

    1. Kris says:

      I wouldnt be so quick to say Martin is expendable just yet. I think you have to let these young kids play for 3-4months and then evaluate the situation from there. People need to remeber that Martin is our #2 D man, very solid and eats huge minutes.

      1. hockeymonster says:

        Until maatta gets back trading dmen is a bit risky. But PM is at peak value and don’t wanna lose nisky, orpik and him for nothing.

      2. Poole says:

        Yes. But we have the depth at D to survive his loss, especially with Ehrhoff in the mix (injuries aside). We’re going to lose him anyway, so I’d move him and his big salary for a winger for Sid. Still have
        Letang/Ehrhoff
        Maatta-Bortuzzo
        Despres-Scuds
        Dumo/Harr/Pouliot

  16. Jandy says:

    OK everyone…DO NOT put the word press responses to your post in your spam folder, as the HOST will kick you off, which is friggin bullcrap. I had to re-register with another e-mail address (which is a PITA for me) but if I want to post and interact, then I had to do it THEIR

    1. Jandy says:

      way. Which is b*llcr*p. GrrRr! >:<

      1. hockeymonster says:
        -1

        Always knew you were trouble :)

      2. Jandy says:

        Haha! Byte me Monster Mash! :P

    2. Karen22 says:

      ??? – I haven’t had a problem with this (yet), Jandy. Anyone else?

      1. Jandy says:

        Well, Karen, I threw about 10 messages directly into my SPAM folder at once, and Dejan says I totally shut the site down this morning. Dayum, I didn’t know I had such power. Amazing.

  17. DJ says:

    Excited by the prospect of what this prospect may become.

    Flyers had him highly rated as well. They will rue their decision not to draft him, which is just icing on the cake . . . or the cheesesteak.

    1. BillyBaduka says:

      Mmmmm cheesesteaks. Philly did get that right.

      Good to see you DJ. Nice seeing that familiar snowman in late July.

      1. Jandy says:

        LOL on the snowman , too funny.

      2. DJ says:

        Thx, BB. Good to see most of the gang back together — you, Jandhi, HM, Milo, WB, Luckster and all the others.

        Sarah sign up yet?

      3. Jandy says:

        Have not seen Sarah. And Brandie has yet to sign on…

  18. Rege says:

    Haha, “B Button” stride; love it. I love more so that we are back in Penguins mode. :)

  19. hockeymonster says:

    RE: request for lines

    Dissertation you say….PM trade? Are there rumors out there? I got:

    super duper-sid-HQ
    kuni-geno-BB
    spaling-sutter-downie
    uher/sill-goc-comeau/adams/payerl

    PM-tanger
    maatta/dumoulin-ehrhoff
    despres/scuderi-bortuzzo

    1. Poole says:

      No tangible rumors. Everyone seems afraid to sell high on players, like Martin and Sutter. That, and I am going to explode if Despres/Dumo/Harrington/Pouliot spend another yr rotting in the minor leagues. We need to use them!

      I like your lines..once we get Dupes to the 3rd!

      1. hockeymonster says:

        I think despres will get significant ice time and dumoulin/harrington will get their chances too. Ya once kapanen is ready we’ll have some significant 3rd line depth. And i’m all for selling high at the right time. Sutter needs to stay tho. Centers are too hard to come by.

      2. Poole says:

        Fair enough. Unless Sutter want’s $4M. He is an average NHL third liner. Goc can replace him short term. I’d prefer to keep Sutter…but with the right return, I would be okay moving him as well. Kunitz might be joining Dupuis as a third liner as well after this season..

  20. mpackage says:

    Trying not to get overly excited about it but a Maatta in winger form is one of the key things this team is missing. Young blood/energy with skill to match. I hope he gets a real shot with 87, 71, or both(!)…

  21. Jandy says:

    OK, so who shut the site down this time?

    1. Karen22 says:

      ??????

      1. Jandy says:

        It’s awfully quiet in here…

      2. Wild Bill says:

        most are over at the morning thread

  22. Ellen says:

    Kapanen seems mature and confident for being just a kid! He answered your questions without any signs of being flustered. Great article!

  23. Mike says:

    If Kapanen doesn’t make the Pens’ roster, where is he likely to play next season? Too often players are returned to their other teams. How can the Pens be assured that prospects are developing skills in a way that will give them the best chance to contribute earlier?

  24. Stephen Powanda says:

    Great Article on Kapanan. Really enjoyed it!

  25. Saxon Daugherty says:

    I have no doubt the hype about Kapanen is legit. He seems like a great kid off the ice and i’m just ready to see what he brings to the table.

  26. Having followed him play in Liiga I am convinced of Kap’s raw potential. However, the maturity he exhibits off ice does not currently translate to maturity on ice. He needs to develop a new level of fighting spirit and consistency before he can make it in the NHL. 2-3 years to go

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