Kapanen not only Penguins forward prospect poised to make impact
With the NHL Draft and the start of the free agent signing period quickly approaching, Trib Total Media breaks down the Penguins' organizational depth chart. Last week, it was defensemen and goaltenders. This week: forwards.
Kasperi Kapanen heard the cries from Western Pennsylvania all the way back in his native Finland.
He knows Penguins fans desperately want a home-grown skilled winger to play alongside centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — they've wanted one for almost a decade now — and he wants to be the man to answer the call.
“People throw my name around. That's acceptable,” Kapanen said. “I know they want me to play over there. I want to play over there too. I'm trying to be there next year. If it's meant to be, then I will be.”
Kapanen said he plans to spend the offseason working out with his dad, former NHL winger Sami Kapanen, to build strength before he takes a run at a job with the Penguins in the fall.
He could have company. Swedish center Oskar Sundqvist is close to NHL-ready, and Scott Wilson and Bryan Rust could add speed to the bottom six.
In fact, for the first time in recent memory, the Penguins might have more forward prospects than defense prospects who could make a dent in the NHL next season, especially if general manager Jim Rutherford makes good on his promise to get younger and faster.
His challenge as the free agent signing period begins July 1 will be to find veteran bottom-six forwards who could play in the NHL if needed but also play in the AHL if prospects beat them out.
“That's what I'm trying to be careful with,” Rutherford said, “that we leave a couple (roster spots) open, that (prospects) have a legitimate chance, that there's a spot there for them and they're not fighting against a guy with a one-way (contract).”
Top forward prospects
Kasperi Kapanen, 18 (6-0, 178)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Petr Nedved
Notable: He's still built like a teenager, so he can get pushed off the puck, but the talent is there. Great speed and a dangerous release. There's no reason he can't be in the NHL top six by the end of the season.
Oskar Sundqvist, 21 (6-3, 209)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Jan Hrdina
Notable: His AHL stay at the end of last season was cut short by injury, so it's hard to predict how his game will translate on the smaller ice. He's a nifty stick-handler for his size and can play in any role.
Scott Wilson, 23 (5-11, 183)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Bob Errey
Notable: The consistency hasn't been there, but he's shown hints he could be an interesting third-line prospect with speed. He's not afraid to hit or play in traffic, and every now and then he snaps off an NHL-caliber shot.
Bryan Rust, 23 (5-11, 193)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Tyler Kennedy
Notable: If the Penguins really want to get younger and faster up front, this is their man. He's not tremendously skilled, but his strength is his predictability. He uses his speed and goes to the net on nearly every shift.
Conor Sheary, 23 (5-9, 175)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Steve Sullivan
Notable: He has great vision, poise and creativity, but the elephant in the room is his lack of size. Is he the next Tyler Johnson or Chris Bourque? He played on an AHL contract last year, so the Penguins would need to give him an NHL deal to find out.
Teddy Blueger, 20 (6-0, 185)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Mark Letestu
Notable: The second-round pick from the 2012 draft is a play-making center with a two-way mindset, and the Penguins like the way he's developed into a leader in three years at Minnesota State-Mankato. Skating, specifically explosiveness, is a question mark.
Jake Guentzel, 20 (5-10, 167)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Toby Petersen
Notable: A third-round pick in the 2013 draft, he has been a dynamic point-per-game performer for two years at Nebraska-Omaha. He's undersized, though, and hasn't really been asked to play a pro-style game.
Anton Zlobin, 22 (5-11, 209)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Ruslan Fedotenko
Notable: He has been injured for a lot of his time in Wilkes-Barre, and his regular-season production has been underwhelming, but there are signs of life. He scored big goals in the 2014 playoffs and is committed to backchecking.
Josh Archibald, 22 (5-10, 176)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Chris Conner
Notable: He had only five goals in 45 games as a rookie last year with the Baby Pens, so he sits squarely in the darkhorse category. But he has great wheels and a feisty attitude. Perhaps new AHL coach Mike Sullivan can get him going.
Dominik Uher, 22 (6-0, 202)
Comparable player from Penguins past: Nick Spaling
Notable: There's nothing sexy about his game, but in the salary-cap era, every team needs a couple of players like that. He's dependable defensively and willing to get his nose dirty but average with the puck on his stick.