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Penguins pay a Jason Zucker price for Kasperi Kapanen

Can Kapanen live up to the price that Pittsburgh paid for him in a trade with Toronto?

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Earlier this season, the Penguins went out and spent a future first round pick and a prospect (drafted in the second round) to add 28-year old Jason Zucker. The trade was roundly praised as the Pens adding a useful player for a decent price.

Today, cut through the noise and Pittsburgh went out and spent a future first round pick and a prospect (drafted in the second round) to add 24-year old Kasperi Kapanen. At kindest, it hasn’t been received well online.

And that’s a matter of perception. Critics see the Pens over-spending to add a player better suited to play a third line role. To be fair, they see that because Kapanen’s 2019-20 season was a disappointment. As James Mirtle wrote earlier this week:

Let’s face it: Kapanen had a really underwhelming season. Just 13 goals, and none in the playoffs. He seemed to really solidify himself as a third-liner, more than anything. And while he’s only 24, I’m not sure there’s as much upside here as was forecast by some a couple years ago. You add in the fact that other teams around the league are really intrigued by him, and the return would be much more substantial than for someone like Johnsson (or Kerfoot)

And as Jonas Siegel in The Athletic put it just today after the trade:

Kapanen ultimately became replaceable, peaking as a third liner. With limited playmaking abilities, he was unable to make his linemates better. His speed was splashy, but too often is didn’t result in anything tangible. He looked the part of a useful NHL forward, good for 15-20 goals, plenty of speed, size, and penalty killing ability, and not much beyond that.

The Penguins however, don’t see a third line peak. That’s why they paid a big price.

“Kasperi is a good, young player that brings speed to our lineup and plays the way we want to play,” said general manager Jim Rutherford. “Having previously drafted him, we know him as a player and feel he can improve our top six.”

Read that again - “he can improve our top six”.

That’s the key to this whole transaction. Toronto saw Kapanen as a third liner. Rutherford sees the player as a contributing scoring line winger.

The Pens think, for better or worse, Kapanen (at only just 24) is going to be their next Zucker type of addition, not just a player who couldn’t hack a spot on a scoring line in Toronto.

For fun, here’s what Zucker looked like at a similar age to Kapanen now, via hockeydb:

Not so great huh? In subsequent years, the offense developed more into a consistent 20-30 goal threat and 45-60 point player.

View it like that and you can see why the Pens had some interest. By age alone, Kapanen’s a little more advanced than Zucker by this stage, based on his scoring.

But the Pens won’t be expecting 13 goal seasons out of Kapanen before. If a trade can be boiled down into simple terms, it looks like Toronto thinks Kapanen is closer to his 2019-20 form, while Pittsburgh projects Kapanen to be able to build on his first full NHL season in 2018-19.

The Pens have also had success recently with a player perhaps with better tools for a third line in Bryan Rust. All Rust did was breakout with a 57 point in 55 game effort in 2019-20, his age-27 season. The expectation for Kapanen would certainly have to be to take his game to the next level that players such as Zucker and Rust have done in their mid-20s.

There’s also the Sidney Crosby factor. The Athletic cited an unnamed NHL coach who believed Kapanen would be a good fit:

“I think he’ll be good (in Pittsburgh),” the coach said. “A guy like Sid, he’s a good person to get (Kapanen) to understand, ‘You need to get these pucks.’ Sid wants to play with guys who can go get the puck and also finish. He’s the right personality for that.”

The fit and all-around skill set and future reasonable growth potential will be key factors. That said, there still are a lot of valid questions.

It’s very reasonable to wonder why pull the trigger on this deal right now, the timing is quite curious now six weeks out from the draft. Did the Pens try this offer for Montreal’s Max Domi and get told no? Were they certain that no other young NHL forward would become available for a high pick? If so, how could they feel that way?

All reasonable questions. It’s also important to contextualize that this trade is the first salvo of an off-season rebuilding plan for the Pens.

There will be many more. The team has a ton of players under contract next year, but more moves are still to come to shape the 2020-21 Penguins.

Getting clarification or a final touch wasn’t the point of today’s trade for Rutherford. What he did, in his eyes, was simply to complete the top 6 forward group to add Kapanen with Crosby, Zucker, Rust, Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin. That’s a great start right there for 2020-21 if Kapanen can live up to the way his general manager sees him.