It took six-and-a-half years, two different trades, and until the fourth game of the 2020-21 NHL season, but Kasperi Kapanen finally made his debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.
He absolutely made the most of it in a 5-4 overtime win against the Washington Capitals.
Kapanen was not only the Penguins’ best player in the game, he was the one consistent bright spot on a night where the team seemed to be sleep walking through the first half of the game. It was an encouraging debut not only because he helped spark a come-from-behind win, but for the potential he showed for the remainder of the season and the impact he might be able to make.
He brought speed, skill and creativity, and helped wake the team up late in the first period when it needed a spark.
When you look at the box score you do not really see anything that immediately jumps off the page at you. He only played 10 minutes, he had two shots on goal, and one assist. In a vacuum they are rather pedestrian numbers. But the game is not played in a vacuum. There are other variables at play, and making an impact does not necessarily mean just scoring goals and adding assists.
It was not only his first game of the season, but it also came after he had barely skated with the team and was almost certainly still trying to get himself back to game speed and grasp a new system on a new team. That is not an easy transition with no training camp and almost no practice time.
He opened the game on the fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Colton Sceviour and looked great.
He got some time in the spot we expect him to play in (alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel) and, again, looked great.
When he was on the ice during his 10 minutes of ice time (all even-strength ice time) the Penguins held a 14-3 shot attempt advantage (the best mark of any player on the Penguins, via Natural Stat Trick) and dominated the scoring chance department. That fourth line also scored the Penguins’ first goal of the game when Sceviour knocked in a loose puck in the goal crease after a slick play by Kapanen to set it up.
That goal — and more specifically the play by Kapanen — was the first moment all night that the Penguins looked like they had any interest in actually playing hockey. Up until that point the offense was, for lack of a better word, sluggish. It was honestly like something out of the Mike Johnson era where the team was bad and boring. Nobody could create anything. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere Kapanen burst through the neutral zone with the puck, cut across the middle of the ice in the offensive zone, and put a shot on net that ultimately resulted in Sceviour’s second goal of the season. It was everything the team had not done in the first period.
At the time of the trade I was pretty high on the Kapanen acquisition, even with the high cost. Yeah, they gave up a lot of assets to get him. Maybe it was an overpay given the free agent and trade market this offseason. All of that can be true. It can also be true that Kapanen is a good player that will help them and make them better. He did — and still does — check all of the boxes for the type of player the Penguins should be looking to add. Younger, fast, talented, productive and still has some upside. Not sure what exactly that upside is or what we should expect over a full season, but I am optimistic this is going to work. His first game was an outstanding debut.