There’s been a lot of talk of late that Toronto Maple Leafs Kasperi Kapanen is making William Nylander expendable. Don’t believe the hype. While Kapanen has done a commendable job replacing Nylander on the top line, he’s not the equivalent player and the Maple Leafs will be a better team once Nylander re-signs.
Toronto Maple Leafs Kasperi Kapanen Does Not Replace William Nylander
Kapanen is a great player and might have a long future with the Maple Leafs. But the Maple Leafs would prefer to have Nylander in the lineup. Although an argument for trading Nylander was recently made on Last Word on Hockey by Christian Holmes.
Scoring Pace Is Unsustainable
Part of the reason there is talk that the Maple Leafs don’t need Nylander is due to the deluge of goals they’re scoring. They have 25 goals in their first five games. Twice they’ve scored seven times. They’re on pace for 410 goals this season. They can’t match that pace all season. Only three teams have even topped 300 in one season since 1997. And only the Edmonton Oilers of the 80s ever reached 400.
Already there are scoring woes on one of the Maple Leafs lines. It’s just hidden by Matthews’ record-breaking start to the season. The Nazem Kadri line has yet to score a goal on a goaltender this season. Kadri is a former 30 goal scorer. He used to play with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner. Now he plays with a revolving door group that includes Par Lindholm, Connor Brown, and Josh Leivo.
The Maple Leafs are supposed to have three lines of scary depth. So far they have two. Tavares and Matthews are among the top one-two punch in the league. But the Maple Leafs are a team that is going to win by scoring a lot and allowing a lot the other way. Without a third line that can regularly score, they may find two lines is not enough once they start playing teams that actually compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
When you listen to Mike Babcock talk about Kapanen it’s clear Kapanen isn’t there to replace Nylander so much as he’s there to replace Zach Hyman. It looks as though Kapanen can score, he had a nice one on a breakaway in Chicago. And he’s fast. But he’s not on the top line to create offence like Nylander would. He’s the grinder of the line. He helps create offense in a differnet way. One that is complimentary to Nylander.
Here’s what Babcock recently had to say about Kapanen.
“He’s got to understand what kind of player he’s going to be in the National Hockey League. I think that’s the hardest thing when you enter the league and you’re not a top two-line player. You’ve been a top two-line player your whole life and now you’ve got to find a way to survive, and you’ve got to find a way to be important on a team. So, his way is going to be with his speed, with his tenacity, with his heavy play, with on the cycle, with finishing checks, with getting to the net. And the sooner the player understands that — no matter what the coach says, the player’s got to come to grips with what they’ve got to do to be successful in the league. And when they do, they usually get up and rolling. He’s been in the grinder now. You’re a first-round pick, it takes this long to get here. Now it’s time for him to go.”
What stands out most in this quote is Babcock saying Kapanen is not a top two-line player. Kapanen is great at getting in on the forecheck and disrupting the opposing team’s defence. That allows Matthews and Marleau to recover the puck and create scoring chances. But at that point it’s Matthews is driving the offence for that line now. He’s good at that, but he’s also a goal scorer. He needs other players with him to help drive offence 5-on-5. To keep sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Kapanen isn’t providing that. Nylander does.
Kapanen may still prove to be a top six player, despite what Babcock as to say, but it’s clear the coach’s opinion, for now, is that Kapanen is in no way a replacement player for Nylander. He’s just working with what he’s got.
Matthews Line 5-on-5
Matthews has 12 points. He’s got nine goals in five games. Four of those goals are on the power play. A stacked power play that sees Babcock put all his stars on the ice at the same time. At 5-on-5, Matthews is seeing other team’s shutdown lines. And his numbers reflect that. If the Maple Leafs didn’t have Tavares and Marner on their own line, the confidence around Leaf Nation may not be quite so high.
Matthews is a -1 this season. He’s got nine goals. Four more than the next non-Maple Leafs NHL goal-scoring leader, but he’s been on the ice for more goals against at 5-on-5 than he’s scored. His Corsi For is 47.2 percent. And his relative Corsi For is -5.4. Those are not great numbers. At 5-on-5 the Matthews line is not dominating play.
Where Will Kapanen Fit When Nylander Returns
Tavares has Marner as his main wingman and Hyman to churn it all up. Matthews has played with Nylander most of his career, with Hyman as the third of the group. If Babcock sees Kapanen as a grinder, it makes sense that when Nylander returns, Kapanen would remain on that top line. The Hyman of that line.
If Kapanen can use his speed to create turnovers on dump-ins, Matthews and Nylander can use their offensive gifts to create scoring chances. That trio may be even more effective that they would be with Hyman as the third. While Hyman does his job supremely well, Kapanen still has the edge on scoring ability. The concern with the Matthews, Nylander, Hyman combo last year was that the line was dragged down by a player that couldn’t finish. Hyman has 29 goals in 185 games played. Not traditional numbers for a first line winger.
If Kapanen can provide what Hyman does and score goals. A top line of Matthews, Nylander, and Kapanen would make an already potent offence much better. It would also allow Kadri to match up with Marleau, making that line another legitimate threat. If the Maple Leafs can get all three of their lines scoring consistently, they’ll be much better prepared to play against the likes of the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Power Play
The Maple Leafs power play unit of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Kadri, and Morgan Rielly has scored every power play goal so far this season for the Maple Leafs. They each have about 2:30 of power play ice time on average this season. They have seven goals in that time. The second unit which consists of Leivo, Tyler Ennis, Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and Andreas Johnsson (when he’s in the line up) has about half the time of the first unit and zero goals.
Kapanen has seen little time on the power play. That’s mostly because he’s finding a good amount of time on the penalty kill. When Nylander returns, he’ll boost that second power play unit considerably. Something Kapanen isn’t doing at the moment, although in all fairness, he hasn’t been given that chance.
It appears as though Nylander is superfluous now, but he’s not. He’s a key piece on a team that has been built, mostly out of necessity, around offence. If the Maple Leafs are going to be successful come playoff time, they need their offence working as they planned. That means Nylander has to be on the ice and Kapanen is not an adequate substitute.
OTTAWA, ON – SEPTEMBER 18: Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Kasperi Kapanen (24) sets up for the faceoff during third period National Hockey League preseason action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators on September 18, 2017, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)