By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
TORONTO -- Kasperi Kapanen says he isn't thinking about it but his greatest success with the Toronto Maple Leafs might come at a significant price.
He has eight points in his past five games and each one of them sent a subtle message to William Nylander that just maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs can do without him. The complication is Kapanen and Nylander, who is sitting at home in Sweden because of a contract dispute, have been best friends and roommates since they started out with the Toronto Marlies farm team in the 2015-16 season.
Ever since he was moved up from the fourth line in the third game of the NHL season to play right wing beside Auston Matthews and left winger Patrick Marleau, Kapanen and his linemates have been on fire. Matthews has 12 points in the five games the line has been together, while Kapanen has eight and Marleau three.
The happy side effect of this for Leafs management is Kapanen's play is putting more heat on Nylander, Matthews's regular running mate. With Kapanen, 22, running up the points with Matthews, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is probably feeling better about resisting the Nylander camp's demands for what is thought to be a salary of US$8million a year on a long-term contract.
Now it is Kapanen who is working those two-on-one rushes with Matthews that leave defencemen flat-footed. But the thought his opportunity is coming at the expense of his friend hadn't occurred to Kapanen.
"To be honest, I didn't even think of that," Kapanen said Tuesday referring to Nylander.
"Everyone wants Willie [Nylander] to be here. He's a big part of the team. He brings a lot of energy and a lot of offence to our team."
Well, Dubas, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and maybe even head coach Mike Babcock could be forgiven for having thought about Nylander's place in the team given Kapanen's performances.
Fitting everyone under the NHL salary cap is part of Dubas's and Shanahan's jobs and their idea of the proper salary for Nylander is something south of US$7-million.
The key date here is Dec. 1, which is the deadline for NHL teams to sign their restricted free agents. Anyone still unsigned by then is no longer eligible to play in the current season. Just which side this puts the pressure on depends on the observer's perspective.
If Nylander is worried about reclaiming his spot next to Matthews as the clock ticks, then Kapanen's hot streak is not comforting. But if his goal is to land that six-or-more-year contract at a number as close to US$8-million as he can get, then the thinking is things will work themselves out once the contract is done, even if he can't play this season.
There is also the possibility of trading Nylander - a growing one in the minds of some NHL types - but history shows teams never get the maximum price - a top defenceman in this case - if there is any kind of problem with the player in question.
In the meantime, Kapanen is enjoying his good fortune.
"You never know what the future holds," he said. "But like I've told you guys for the past week or so, I'm just enjoying the ride for now."
Kapanen thinks he was able to click so quickly with Matthews because both of them can play at a high rate of speed.
"I just try to use my legs as much as I can, get into open ice and maybe on a breakaway he's the guy who is sure to make that play, that pass to me," Kapanen said. "And vice versa, I feel like if I pass to him he's got a dangerous shot. Also having Patty [Marleau] there, Patty's an outstanding player as well so it's been clicking for us."
And Babcock isn't about to give any assurances that even if Nylander signs quickly and reports to the Leafs his old spot will be waiting for him. "I just worry about the guys who are here, so I don't have to spend much time speculating on that," the coach said.
ANDERSEN A QUESTION MARK FOR THURSDAY
Goaltender Frederik Andersen, who sustained a knee injury in last Saturday's win over the Washington Capitals, may not be ready to play Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Babcock said Monday night, after backup Garret Sparks stepped in to beat the Los Angeles Kings, that Andersen would return against Pittsburgh.
But Andersen only appeared for about a half hour of the Leafs' practice on Tuesday and a decision on his status will not be made until game day. "We're going to see. I don't want to get ahead of myself. We'll see how it feels," Andersen said.
Babcock concurred: "What did Freddy say? We'll see for Thursday."
Ever since Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen was moved up from the fourth line in the third game of the NHL season, he and his linemates have been on fire.
JOHN E. SOKOLOWSKI/USA TODAY SPORTS