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Dave Feschuk: The Kasperi Kapanen trade looks like a good start for the Leafs. Then again, so did the Nazem Kadri deal

Dave Feschuk: The Kasperi Kapanen trade looks like a good start for the Leafs. Then again, so did the Nazem Kadri deal
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For most of a decade and a half, the Maple Leafs haven’t been particularly adept at winning important hockey games. At least they’ve developed a consolation pastime: They’ve become known for winning their share of excitement-inducing trades.

And on the face of it, Tuesday’s deal that sent Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins was a clear dubya for Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. Along with shedding Kapanen’s $3.2-million (U.S.) annual average value from the cap sheet — a contract now on Pittsburgh’s books for the coming two seasons — the Leafs filled out their haul with some tantalizing assets. They acquired the Penguins’ first-round pick in the coming NHL draft — the 15th overall selection in a year scouts say is deep with talent — a nice replacement for the 13th selection the Leafs previously traded away to the Carolina Hurricanes in the shedding of Patrick Marleau’s contract.

And Dubas, too, got Pittsburgh counterpart Jim Rutherford to throw in a cadre of players, including one of the Penguins’ top handful of prospects, Filip Hallander, a 20-year-old Swedish league forward who was a second-round pick in 2018; Evan Rodrigues, a 27-year-old winger from Toronto who’s played 199 NHL games in a five-year career; and David Warsofsky, a 30-year-old defenceman who’s spent the past couple of seasons in the AHL.

As a way to spend the lazy days of an unprecedented August, it was easy to hail it as an impressive bit of business, albeit with the usual caveats about the risk of rash judgment.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that the cap-space-efficient trade that sent Nazem Kadri to Colorado last summer was largely applauded as it happened. But now that Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot have underwhelmed, and Kadri’s unpredictable edginess has yet to be replaced as he prospers in Colorado, it’s seen differently.

Which is not to say the Kapanen move didn’t make sense on a lot of levels. As the first of a series of alterations that are sure to follow — and Dubas told a post-trade media call that “I don’t think this is going to be it for us” — it was a solid start, even if it was done to correct self-induced problems.

Dubas certainly needed to open up room under a coronavirus-induced flat salary cap if he’s going tick off a lengthy off-season to-do list that includes improving the defensive corps and re-signing restricted free agents such as Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev. But it was Dubas, don’t forget, who capped himself out, in large part by displaying novice negotiating skills with core players who maximized their paydays at the expense of team depth. There isn’t a player remaining in the playoffs with a cap hit north of $10 million. The Leafs have three of them.

That’ll make improving the roster difficult. But with the likes of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci expected to depart in free agency — unless Ceci, apparently a Dubas favourite, is willing to take a considerable pay cut from his $4.5-million ticket – the Leafs will be obliged to kick the tires on a handful of free-agent options on the blue line, among them Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Tanev and T.J. Brodie. And they’ll likely need to move out more money to make themselves serious players in that market.

“This was a good start to getting to where we want to go,” Dubas said. “We wanted this flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades, and so we ll give an open mind to that.”

There are other upsides to the deal. It opens up opportunity for cheaper players to to step into Kapanen’s third-line role. Nick Robertson , the teenager who played four of the five play-in games against the Blue Jackets, looks like he could be ready. Alex Barabanov , the KHL right winger signed to a one-year deal worth $925,000, could be one of a number of other possibilities.

Given that, and considering that Kapanen followed up his 20-goal breakout of 2018-19 with a 13-goal letdown this season, failing to score in the play-in series against the Blue Jackets, it’s easy enough to suggest he won’t be missed.

Aug. 14, 2020

Still, for all of Kapanen’s foibles — the inexplicably thrown broken stick against Montreal early this season that spoke to larger on-ice judgment issues; the team-imposed suspension for oversleeping in February — he had his big moments as a Leaf, including a double-overtime winner in the playoffs against the Capitals a few years back. This year he led the team in drawing penalties both in the regular season and in the play-ins — not an inconsequential skill for a team that’s ranked third-last in the league in power-play opportunities over the past two seasons combined. And in the past two regular seasons he compiled more five-on-five points than any Maple Leaf not named Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner or John Tavares.

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So as necessary as the swap was, it’s still a trade in which the Leafs gave up the best player in return for a boatload of potential. Much like the Kadri trade, it still hasn’t addressed the team’s back-end issues, although it certainly could be a precursor to such a move. Much like the Kadri trade, it’ll be worth revisiting it in a year or more. Rutherford told more than one outlet that Kapanen is pencilled in to play with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The list of speedy forwards who’ve turned such an opportunity into a career boon is considerable. Chris Kunitz, probably the best example, transformed himself from a plucky third-liner into a Canadian Olympian skating alongside Crosby.

If Kapanen morphs from a Leaf letdown to something more than that in Pittsburgh, it’ll certainly say something about Crosby’s legendarily positive influence. And maybe it’ll say something, too, about the environment in the Toronto dressing room in which Kapanen was left to oversleep and underachieve.
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