Penguins Gambling Kapanen Can Become ... Kapanen

Penguins Gambling Kapanen Can Become … Kapanen

A job that had the potential to be the worst in all of hockey — preparing Kasperi Kapanen’s case for his salary-arbitration hearing with the Pittsburgh Penguins — became unnecessary Thursday.

That hearing, which had been scheduled for July 30, was rendered moot when Kapanen and the team agreed to a two-year deal that carries a salary-cap hit of $3.2 million, the same as the contract that recently expired.

And while it’s rare for a relatively prominent player who’s approaching the prime of his career to accept a contract that doesn’t include a pay increase, Kapanen should feel fortunate to break even on this one.

Considering how he produced — or, more to the point, didn’t produce — in 2021-22, he probably should send his agent, Markus Lehto, a thank-you note for squeezing so much out of Ron Hextall, who had proven to be rather frugal in other negotiations (in the context of the bloated deals that are the norm in pro sports, of course).

Frankly, after watching Kapanen — who was projected as a top-six winger and was viewed, by many, as a potential 30-goal man — put up just 11 goals and 21 assists in 79 games last season, the safest move for Hextall would have to let Kapanen search for a paycheck elsewhere.

To simply decline to extend a qualifying offer to him, allowing Kapanen to become an unrestricted free agent and moving on from what Hextall could reasonably have depicted as a misguided acquisition by his predecessor, Jim Rutherford.

To take the money the Penguins saved by cutting ties with Kapanen and put it toward new deals with some of their other players who needed a contract — Danton Heinen, anyone? — or to snag someone on the free-agent market. It’s safe to assume that, oh, picking up a rugged winger for the fourth line would have been well-received by most of the fan base.

But Hextall, whose work this offseason has purged any doubts about his willingness to make bold moves, instead opted to take another risk: That Kapanen can — and will — become the player the Pittsburgh Penguins believed he could be when they selected him in Round 1 of the 2014 NHL Draft, and who Rutherford felt could be a difference-maker when he brought him back from Toronto two summers ago.

Hextall has seen that Kapanen is an excellent skater who can detect — and exploit — holes in an opposing defense, and that he has a hair-trigger release on what can be a lethal shot.

Of course, he also has witnessed Kapanen disappear for such extended periods that there were suspicions he had swapped his No. 42 sweater for an invisibility cloak.

Hextall obviously is willing to gamble that Kapanen still can become a valuable piece of the Penguins’ personnel puzzle, that he can team up with Jeff Carter to make the third line a consistently productive unit.

And perhaps Hextall has had an even more radical vision — the product of a fever dream, perhaps? — that, say, Kapanen will be so productive that the Penguins would be able to move him up to the No. 2 line, bump Rickard Rakell from right wing to left on that unit and trade Jason Zucker to open some salary-cap space.

That’s not necessarily a crisis at the moment — shedding the $1.3 million or so they are above the cap ceiling now shouldn’t be too difficult to remedy — but there’s nothing wrong with having a little cap space to spare.

Expecting Kapanen to perform at the level that would make any of that realistic probably isn’t wise, and there’s no indication the Pittsburgh Penguins will count on Kapanen to give them any more than a reasonable return on the latest investment they’ve made in him.

Even that would be a most welcome change.

Especially for whoever has to prepare Kapanen’s case for his next arbitration hearing.

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