The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a new look top line as they get set to play their first pre-season game tonight against the Ottawa Senators.
Out is Zach Hyman, who is expected to miss about 15 regular season games. In, Kasperi Kapanen who will get a shot on the left side with John Tavares and Mitch Marner. In a lot of ways, Hyman has been the straw that stirs the drink on the Maple Leafs top line, engaging in puck battles and occupying space in front of the net. These hallmarks of Hyman’s game will be missed and while Kapanen doesn’t necessarily have to try to copy Hyman’s style, he will look to provide those similar traits. “Playing with those guys, it’ll be skating, getting the puck to them, standing in front of the net,” Kapanen said. “I’ll let them do all the nice things and I’ll do the dirty work. It’s just hockey, I’ll figure it out.”
Seems simple, the way Kapanen puts it but will he be able to slide into Hyman’s spot so seamlessly?
Let’s break it down using the three areas Kapanen referenced – skating, getting pucks to his linemates and standing in front of the net.
Hyman is a better skater than some might think but Kapanen operates on another level. Last season, Kapanen skated the puck end-to-end (from the defensive zone into the offensive zone) 71 times at even-strength, 27th most of any player in the NHL. Hyman was well down the list at 217th, going coast-to-coast 26 times. Granted, Hyman doesn’t need to be ‘that guy’ as Marner ranked 13th in end-to-end rushes with 104 but Kapanen will add more speed to a line that already plays with a lot of pace. As for meaningful, speed-based contributions, Kapanen ranked 11th in scoring chances off-the-rush last season with 72.
The Maple Leafs love the stretch pass so don’t be surprised to see Leafs defenders bomb pucks from the defensive zone to Kapanen in the neutral zone, where he can hit the attacking blue line with speed.
Mike Babcock has called Hyman “the best forechecker in hockey.” That can be debated but what can not is that last season, Hyman engaged in more offensive zone puck battles than anyone else in hockey.
Regardless of how many battles Hyman wins, there is inherent value just being in the fight. Even if he doesn’t come out with the puck, tying up defenders creates offensive zone time, disrupts breakouts and, at times, leads directly to offensive opportunities.
Hyman engaged in more battles than anyone last season, lost more puck battles than anyone but also won the 8th most. Like I said, just being in the fight is the key which shouldn’t be an issue for Kapanen. Listed at 6,1, 192 pounds, Kapanen won’t get pushed off the puck easily and his speed will allow him to get in on the forecheck when needed. Despite ranking 190th, among forwards in offensive zone puck battles last season and 255th in battles won, I don’t see this being a problem area for Kapanen.
In addition to digging out pucks for his linemates, Hyman plays a net-front role, creating chaos in front of opposing goalies. Only a handful of players averaged more shots on goal, at 5-on-5, from the high-danger, inner slot area than Hyman last season.
Kapanen averaged about half as many, 0.49 per-game, though I’m not convinced he’ll look to park himself in front of the net as frequently as Hyman does. Tavares, who ranks 2nd on the list above, is one of the best net-front players in the league and it won’t surprise me if Kapanen relies more on his puck possession skills to create offense.
So, will it work? It should.
The sample size with this trio of forwards is extremely limited as Kapanen, Tavares and Marner only played 6 minutes and 10 seconds together at even-strength last season. For what it’s worth, the line did have an expected goals percentage of 73 percent while outscoring the opposition 3-1. Plan the parade, I guess?
Kapanen should be able to replicate some of Hyman’s attributes and will certainly add another gear in terms of speed to the Leafs top line. We’ll see how much chemistry these guys have when the puck drops tonight in Newfoundland.
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)