Dave Feschuk: Kapanen tosses broken stick on the fire with Leafs front-line duty off to an ice-cold start

Even a day later, it’s difficult to fathom precisely what was running through the head of Kasperi Kapanen during the rock-bottom moment of Saturday night’s third-period collapse in Leafland.

You’ve probably seen the video evidence of the Maple Leaf winger’s now-infamous error in judgment — that inexplicable penalty-killing lowlight in which he threw away a broken stick and, with it, a win. Depending on your tolerance for rash acts of athletic self-indulgence, you’ll either a) condemn Kapanen’s gaffe as an unforgivable sin that should have landed him on the bench for the remainder of the game (which it did not), or b) give it a pass as the knuckleheaded crime of a contrite athlete who momentarily lost his mind.

Of this there no doubt: It was dumb, and it cost the Leafs dearly. By throwing his just-broken stick at Montreal’s Jeff Petry during a third-period penalty kill, Kapanen gave the Canadiens the penalty shot on which Petry scored to tie things 4-4. Not long after, a game the Leafs were comfortably leading 4-1 with less than 15 minutes to play was in the books as a 6-5 shootout loss.

Even if Kapanen claimed to be like a lot of hockey watchers who didn’t realize his action would result in a penalty shot, he had to know it would result in a penalty. He had to know there’s not a referee on this planet who’s going to watch a player throw the remnants of a stick in the direction of an opponent and not raise an arm. It’s always two minutes if you do such in the offensive or neutral zone. It’s a penalty shot if you try it in the defensive one.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to hit him,” Kapanen said.

Which would make sense if Kapanen wasn’t standing a few feet from Petry when he did the deed. And which misses the point entirely, since the rule doesn’t take into account a chucker’s accuracy. You don’t need to hit the puck or the puck carrier. It’s the act of throwing the twig in the general direction that’s the sin.

“It’s just bad luck,” Kapanen also insisted. Which would be true if by “bad luck” he meant “totally moronic.”

So don’t buy Kapanen’s disingenuous pleas of ignorance. He’s 137 games into his NHL career. He’s the 23-year-old son of an NHL alumnus who’s played and watched the game all over the world. He knew — if not exactly, then generally — that he’d done something beyond explanation, beyond stupid. And if you listened to him carefully on Saturday night, you could get an awfully good sense of where his act of stick-throwing frustration was coming from.

Kapanen, along with issuing more than one claim of responsibility — “It’s my fault,” he acknowledged — also spoke of being “aggravated” at the time of the incident. “My game hasn’t been there as of late for these first three games,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of games left. I’ve just got to be better.”

Bingo. He threw the stick as if it didn’t matter because he’s performing like a player who doesn’t. Look, we’re three games into a six-month grind. None of this means anything in the grand scheme. But getting off to a good start clearly matters to players. And while Kapanen has been alarmingly invisible when he hasn’t been in the midst of Saturday’s critical firestorm, there are plenty of Leafs enjoying a happy beginning to the campaign. One of his former linemates, Auston Matthews, has already reeled off an astounding five goals, which was leading the league Sunday. Kapanen’s current linemates, John Tavares and Mitch Marner, have combined for eight points. Meanwhile, Kapanen has yet to register either a goal or an assist. He’s also leading the team in one category his coach won’t appreciate beyond “penalty shots given.” Kapanen is a team-worst minus-3.

“Our line was out there for a couple of goals (Saturday), so it’s something we’ve just got to work on,” Kapanen said. “Just forget this game and look forward to the future.”

That’s the correct attitude, of course. But if it proves easier said than done, consider that Kapanen is in the first year of the richest contract of his young career. It was back in June that he signed the three-year deal at an annual average of $ 3.2 million. That’s probably a lot more than many expected he’d ever earn when he was acquired in the Phil Kessel trade more than four years ago. And even if Kapanen’s not earning big money by the standards of his richer teammates, there’s always pressure that comes with proving you’re worthy of a payday. He wouldn’t be the first player to feel it.

It doesn’t help, either, that he’s playing out of position, a right-handed shot roaming the left wing in rightful deference to the right-shooting Marner. The long-term plan in Leafland, as head coach Mike Babcock has said more than once, is for Kapanen to ultimately patrol Toronto’s third line, playing right wing alongside centreman Alex Kerfoot and first-year left winger Ilya Mikheyev. That seems like a natural spot in the batting order for Kapanen.

To open the season, though, he’s being asked fill the hole usually occupied by the dogged Zach Hyman, who’s still out recovering from off-season knee surgery. Standing in for a player as integral as Hyman is never easy. And it’s worth wondering if Kapanen, if he’s attempting to imitate someone else, doesn’t risk losing a bit of himself. It was only last month that he spoke to TSN radio about his plan to help offset Toronto’s off-season loss of edgy centreman Nazem Kadri by bringing more of a physical presence.

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“Obviously we lost Naz and we lost some key players that can bring some physicality, so I think that’s one thing to look at,” Kapanen said. “I like to think I bring some grit and some nastiness to our game. And I think I’ve got to just up the ante this year.”

Grit and nastiness is great, sure. But Kapanen got his contract off last season’s 20 goals and 44 points, and the prospect of bigger such numbers in the seasons to come. Three games and one infamously thrown stick later, maybe nobody’s throwing in the towel on his first-line cameo. But beginnings being what they are, now would be a good time for Kapanen to get back to doing hockey things worthy of attention with a stick that’s intact.

Dave Feschuk

TORONTO STAR

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