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Kasperi Kapanen and realistic expectations

Everybody wants to see more from Kasperi Kapanen but he is very quietly a very productive player.

St Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Kasperi Kapanen is probably one of the most confounding members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins paid a steep price to acquire him two years ago, sending a first-round pick, Filip Hallander, and Evan Rodrigues to Toronto (among others) to acquire him. Hilariously enough, the Penguins actually re-acquired two of the players that they sent to Toronto (Hallander and Rodrigues). But even with that, they still sent a first-round pick and took on a $3-plus million salary cap hit to acquire him.

The price — both in terms of assets and salary — naturally creates a high level of expectation. If you are going to give up that many assets and increase your salary cap number you expect to get a certain level of production to make it all worth it. Especially when the player in question has the skillset the Kapanen has. He obviously has a ton of talent, is one of the fastest players in the NHL and gets a lot of opportunities. But I feel like there is a belief that Kapanen has been a disappointment through his first season-and-a-half with the Penguins and is not always producing what he should.

In some way, I get that. Kapanen can be a little frustrating at times when he does not finish chances or randomly loses the puck or does not put up huge goal and point totals. But I have said for a while now that watching first ballot Hall of Fames and a collection of some of the NHL’s All-time greatest players over the past four decades has completely warped Penguins fans ideas of what good NHL players actually look like.

In Pittsburgh we expect top-line players to produce huge numbers because that is what we are used to seeing. But not every top line center produces like Sidney Crosby. Not every second line center produces like Evgeni Malkin. Those players are special for a reason. Not everybody can do what they do and produce at the level they produce. You can be a very good and very useful top-six forward without scoring a ton.

That is kind of where I see Kapanen right now.

Look at Twitter during a Penguins game and listen to a discussion about Kapanen and it seems like there is a perception that the guy has been a disappointment or is not all that productive. But in 73 career games with the Penguins he has scored 19 goals and recorded 48 total points. Averaged out over 82 games he has been a 20-plus, approximately 50-point player with the Penguins, and he is currently on a pace that will put him at that level this season barring injury.

You know what? That is perfectly find offensive output for a middle-six winger. In fact, that is probably what should be expected from a middle-six winger. Just go back and look at the past few full 82-game seasons. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19 the NHL had between 70-100 forwards per season that scored at least 20 goals and had 45 total points. You hit those numbers, you are a pretty good player.

Let us dig a little deeper here beyond that.

Since the start of the 2020-21 season there have been 525 forwards in the NHL that have played at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.

Out of that group Kapanen ranks 59th in goals per 60 minutes at 1.05 goals per 60 (tied with David Pastrnak and Johnny Gaudreau) and 54th in total points per 60 minutes at 2.26 points per 60 (just below Pastrnak, Nikolaj Ehlers, and William Nylander and ahead of Steven Stamkos, Filip Forsberg, Brayden Point, and Matthew Tkachuk). This is not to say that Kapanen is as good as or better than those players, it is just to point out that despite not putting up huge overall goal and point totals he is still a pretty productive player. Especially when you consider he has not gotten a ton of power play time the past two seasons. Almost all of his production comes at even-strength and during 5-on-5 play, while the Penguins tend to break even with him on the ice when it comes to possession numbers and scoring chances.

What I really like about Kapanen this season is that they seem to have something with him and Evan Rodrigues, a line where the whole seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. When that duo is on the ice during 5-on-5 play they are dominant, controlling more than 60 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals and outscoring teams by a 14-1 margin in more than 224 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. When Jason Zucker joins that line the possession numbers increase and the goal differential is 7-0 with that trio on the ice. It is a major reason why I want to see that trio be the third line when everybody is back in the lineup. Individually they all may have their flaws or not be major stars offensively (though Rodrigues is obviously playing and producing at an absurdly high level this season that nobody expected him to play and produce at) but collectively as a group they all work well together and simply produce. That is the goal and that is really all that matters.

We all might like to see Kapanen produce more individually. Maybe you think he should given his draft position, the assets used to acquire him, and the salary cap number. The thing is, even at his current level of production he is still useful and productive and a strong contributor. We just need to realize not every player is going to produce like a superstar.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)