There were a lot of eyes on Kasperi Kapanen coming into the 2020-21 season.
Some of this was the function of last year, where Kapanen scored 30 points in 40 games in his first shortened season as a Penguin. He was identified as a potential regression target after shooting 16.2% in 2020-21, after only shooting a more repeatable 10.2% in the Toronto portion of his career.
There was also the matter of circumstance, with the Penguins losing Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev from the forward group in the offseason and not having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin available due to surgeries. Kapanen would return as the third highest healthy point scoring forward for Pittsburgh from 2020-21 season behind Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
A bigger role and prime power play time was to be had, and coach Mike Sullivan went out of his way to prop up Kapanen as an ascending player on the team after a strong September preseason saw Kapanen play at a high level.
Coach Sullivan on Kapanen: "The sky is the limit for his game. Kappy has the ability to be an elite player. He's one of the fastest skaters we have, he has great offensive instincts... We think there's another level to his game, and we're going to try to help him get there." pic.twitter.com/gfEziT8wEo— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 24, 2021
This happened more than once, and is somewhat unusual for Sullivan to find a thread like this and keep talking openly about “untapped potential” and almost willing his skilled winger to become a consistent impact player.
More Sullivan on Kapanen: "Sometimes that means tough love for Kappy, but it’s not because we don’t think highly of him. It’s just the opposite. We think so highly of him. There's untapped potential. There isn’t any aspect of the game that Kappy can’t excel in, in my opinion."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) September 28, 2021
And then, the real season started. On the surface, Kapanen’s box stats look decent enough with five goals and nine assists in 25 games. However, he has only recorded a goal in three of those 25 games, with a hat trick performance on November 9th being the first goals he scored all season. Over 63 total power play minutes this year, Kapanen has only produced one primary point (and three total assists), in what has to be a major disappointment given ample opportunity when the team was reduced well below full-strength from their best skilled players early in the year.
Kapanen has failed to find that spot or niche and make that next step to reach his untapped potential. His usage has suffered, especially as of late.
Kasperi Kapanen’s Last Two Weeks
Sullivan, the coach intending to do “everything he could” to get Kapanen to the next level has resorted to shuffling the player down and out. There have been a couple of bright spots — the two assists against Montreal came in desperation time when the Pens pulled their goalie. Kapanen’s goal against the Islanders can’t be under-stated either, it was the only goal of a 1-0 contest. For all the stops and starts there has been some good, but seemingly not enough as the trends of ice time goes with only one 5v5 point in the previous eight games.
Kapanen, who played 19+ minutes in six games in October through early November, was outright benched in Edmonton for most of the latter half of the third period and ended up with a season low 11:26 time on ice in that game. In fact, Kapanen’s lowest three TOI games of the season are all within the last eight games, a clear downward trend.
Kapanen’s line placement and role has slid as well. Since forming a very effective line with Jason Zucker and Evan Rodrigues that was eventually broken up by the return of Jeff Carter, Kapanen was playing with Zucker and Carter in a line that did not click as well as when Rodrigues was there.
For all the talk of Sullivan of a forward “getting to the next level” this season, it hasn’t been Kapanen — it’s been Rodrigues who has excelled and finds himself now succeeding as a top line right wing with Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby. Kapanen, also a right winger, was ostensibly brought to Pittsburgh in the first place to play with Crosby. But he has never fit in with the captain’s style of play and due to the styles clash hasn’t really been tried there.
Finding a fit or niche for Kapanen has been something the Pens have been searching for, but yet unable to find. This perhaps stretches back even to last season when Sullivan benched Kapanen during a game and said afterwards, “I didn’t think he had his game going tonight.”
In the last week Kapanen was moved to play with Brock McGinn and Teddy Blueger, a curious assignment since that is the majority of usual checking/defensive matchup line the Pens like to use. It’s not difficult to see the subtext there of the coaching staff looking for something different out of Kapanen, especially as the number of games he hasn’t scored a goal have grown well beyond the nights where he’s put the puck in the net.
By the third period of Monday night’s 6-1 blowout of Seattle, Kapanen had slipped yet again, this time a mid-game change to appearing on the fourth line with Dominik Simon and Drew O’Connor. The vicious cycle Kapanen is in seems to be inescapable at the moment — it’s impossible to score without the offensive and right linemates, but a player isn’t going to be used in such a role forever when not taking advantage of it.
It also feels very telling that as soon as Danton Heinen replaced Kapanen on the Carter line, that duo started producing points and having a bigger impact almost instantaneously. Heinen was something of a depth and throwaway signing, but has seven goals on the season and has generally been a more consistent and visible player so far than Kapanen.
Which is not a great sign from a player that the coach wanted to see as an “elite player” not too many weeks ago. With the season past the quarter point, some long-term lines might well be developing into focus, and where will that leave Kapanen?
This looks like a setup the Pens might find themselves running with, ever they ever can achieve a semblance of full health. That might be a cruel mirage that never comes, but as of now one has to wonder exactly where Kapanen might fit in. There’s always the possibility of tweaks that could have Rust kick up to Crosby’s line, opening a prime spot on Malkin’s right flank. Rust has also played off-wing, which could fit Kapanen on the second line as well. Lines could shuffle further with Zucker returning to Malkin’s line, and Heinen sliding back over to LW, which would make a nice landing spot for Kapanen with Carter.
There will be options if Sullivan and the medical department ever get to that point.
Ron Hextall has been very patient with the team, telling The Athletic’s Josh Yohe recently that due to the injuries he is still in the stage of observing the team and waiting to see how the pieces shake out, before having to respond accordingly. While the contract status of Rust sticks out as a decision to be made, the more telling observation at this point would focus on just where Kapanen fits in with the team.
Lately it is not shaking out too kindly for Kapanen. The emergence of Rodrigues, and to a lesser degree Heinen, have Kapanen already on the outside of a good role playing with Crosby or Carter at the moment.
Which is also important, since fortunes can change. That regression prediction from above? Kapanen is back to a 9.4% shooter this season, well below last year’s 16.2%. He has regressed back to his career average, but is under it. A streaky scorer can heat up, gain confidence and become a key contributor quickly, and the season is a long one.
As the Penguins get deeper into the season and chart a course of what their future holds, a big part of that looks to be solving an issue that Sullivan has been wrestling with since Kapanen joined Pittsburgh. How the Pens decide to use Kapanen and how he performs and executes to re-establish himself or perhaps find himself as a piece to be used to balance the team in a trade could be a factor in play if the slide of usage and results of the last handful of games continues to trend in that direction.