Kasperi Kapanen (right) and Reece Scarlett (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
So the Toronto Marlies are off to the Eastern Conference final in the American League as the executives with the big team tap the tips of their fingers together, their plan falling perfectly into place. Mitch Marner and his London Knights made a mockery of the Ontario League playoffs, Auston Matthews is leading USA in scoring at the World Championship and defenseman Connor Carrick, acquired from the Washington Capitals for Daniel Winnik, scored a goal to take over the AHL’s playoff scoring lead.
To be sure there were smiles and backslaps all around when the Marlies defeated the Albany Devils 4-3 in a darn entertaining Game 7 to win the second-round series and earn the right to face the Hershey Bears, the child team of the Capitals.
There was one thing very, very absent, however. And that was any sort of presence from William Nylander, the No. 2 prospect outside the NHL and the beacon of hope for the Maple Leafs. After the game, the Marlies marched out five players, none of them Nylander. His name was not mentioned once by any of the players or the coach, Sheldon Keefe. In fact, he was just as invisible after the game as he was during it. With just five points in the playoffs, Nylander did not even respond to his coach basically calling him out to be better. He was a beast in the faceoff circle but, with the exception of a wonderful passing play on Carrick’s goal, was non-existent on basically every other inch of the ice. Zero shots. In a Game 7.
This is a double-edged sword for the Maple Leafs. They’re seeing some things from the likes of Carrick and Kapanen that have them excited about the future, but to see their top prospect play so much on the periphery can mean one of two things – either he’s injured and unable to compete at an elevated level or he’s wilting at a very crucial time. And while we’re on the subject of prospects, both Frederik Gauthier (too slow) and Tobias Lindberg (out of his element) were healthy scratches. And that’s the fine line that teams walk between winning and developing players. It doesn’t do much for the development of players such as Gauthier and Lindberg to sit out these kinds of games, but by sitting them out the Marlies gave themselves a better chance to win, thereby allowing them to possibly see action in the next round. Sometimes you forget, though, that these are kids playing in a league filled with men.
The two prospects who stood out most for the Marlies were Kapanen, who might have been the best player on the ice, and Carrick, who should be able to find his way at the bottom end of an NHL blueline despite being undersized for the position.
Kapanen, who showed a flair for the dramatic with the overtime game-winner in the World Junior Championship, is beginning to prove himself to be a big-game player. With the Marlies trailing 2-1 and being smothered in the third period, Kapanen found the puck on his stick and buried it. On the same night Phil Kessel scored again to help the Pittsburgh Penguins to a playoff win, the prospect for whom he was traded was proving his worth.
“This year has been pretty intense in that way and I’ve been on the ice when it counts,” Kapanen said. “I like playing under pressure. It’s something that’s natural to me. It could have been anybody who got that goal that got the team going and I was lucky it was me.”
Nice words, but not terribly convincing. In fact, Keefe is starting to see a pattern with Kapanen, a player about whom he raved after the game. Kapanen was a healthy scratch early in the first round and the message was obviously received.
“I thought he was outstanding and he’s had a terrific series for us,” Keefe said. “He’s played hard, he’s used his speed. You score that goal in the World Juniors and people start to know you and you start to get a bit of a reputation for coming through in big moments, but that’s one. But then you come through a second time and it really starts to become a thing. Another experience for a young player who’s going to keep getting better.”
When an organization is in a full-blown rebuild the way the Maple Leafs are, advancing this far at the developmental level is crucial. Not only does it provide future players with enormous development opportunities, it gives an organization the confidence that the decision to rebuild was a good one.
“You remember these games, whether it’s the positive or negative,” Keefe said. And for our group, but in particular the young guys, these types of experiences…those are terrific experiences for them that I don’t think they’ll lose. They stand a little bit taller when they can persevere through stuff like this. When you talk about development, that’s a massive part of it. Here we are on May 16, we’re not only playing a Game 7, but pushing on and going beyond and that’s going to serve the group very well.”