It was an up-and-down 2021-22 season for Oliver Kapanen. The Finnish centre played in a few different leagues, with varying degrees of success. While his time in Liiga was more of a wash, his play at the under-20 level, including the playoffs, stood out as the most positive. At that tier he posted 26 points (12G, 14A) in 21 games, showing that he is a bit too good for that level.
One could also point to the two games in the World Junior Championship in December as successful. There he played on a shutdown line facing some tough competition, making Finland’s third line with Brett Lambert stand out, sacrificing his own success for that of the team.
However, expectations were higher for the 2021 second-round pick. He could not stick in KalPa’s lineup and went on loan to IPK in Mestis as well as to Kärpät in Liiga, places where he saw limited success in limited time. One could draw comparisons to Joni Ikonen who had trouble breaking into KalPa before his injuries, and one has to wonder how KalPa’s development system is working.
While pointing out the difficulties that Kapanen has faced, one still has to pint out that part of it all might be his transition into the bigger leagues. I watched him in the Four Nations tournament in November and it seemed to me that his confidence in offensive situations was gone. He would either wait too long with his shot, or seemed to squeeze his stick too tightly. His aim was to make the WJC team and he made that, but I don’t think it was in the role he envisions himself, especially on the team that just won silver with him as a depth option.
The lack of pro minutes and low production probably made him fall, though when you look at the U20s he increased his production from 1.11 points per game to 1.25. Most voters thought that he would have progressed further with another year of development.
Despite grabbing the first spot in the Top 25 countdown, Kapanen belongs in the same tier as Vinzenz Rohrer and Ty Smilanic, closer to being ranked 29th than 24th in terms of his average ranking. Only three ballots, include the averaged one from the community, actually had him within the Top 25, though a fairly tight range helped him edge out a few others behind him.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Kapanen made his entry at number 16 in last year’s ballot. He falls nine places with the majority of the voters having him in the mid-20s.
History of #25
|2019||Gustav Olofsson / Jordan Harris|
|2016||Max Friberg / Jeremy Grégoire|
The one thing that stands out with Kapanen is his hockey IQ; he reads the game extremely well. He can be relied upon in every situation, even if coaches seem to make sure he is on the ice for tough assignments like the penalty kill, end-of-game situations, and especially defensive-zone faceoffs. While I lauded his offensive play last year, this year it is the opposite, as his defensive play has taken a leap forward.
Coaches love players they can trust in those situations. Unfortunately, it can lead to what we saw this year, as Kapanen had to sacrifice his own offensive progress in order to benefit the team.
He still has a good wrist shot, and he still doesn’t use it enough. It has been extremely evident that he isn’t comfortable taking shots in the more meaningful games that I have watched him play, and I would assume it is a confidence issue.
His skating is still a bit stilted and his stride is short. It is not a natural motion, and this is where he really needs to put in the effort to make it further in his development. The lack of ankle flexion and knee-bend makes him stay upright and he loses a bit of speed and acceleration because of it.
This also becomes clear at the end of a shift or the final minutes of a game, as well as when he plays a few games in a row with short rest. Deficiencies in his skating affect his overall condition in these critical situations as a lot of energy is wasted with a less effective stride.
The mental aspect of his game is also something in need of work. He has struggled with what seems to be confidence issues all year, and when it really mattered in the deciding game in the U20 Final in Finland he took a 2+10-minute penalty for a hit to the head/neck when the game was on the line. The captain placed his team in a difficult situation with that play. It may not be a persistent problem, and one can understand his frustration, but it is something to keep an eye on as this year will show if he has harnessed his drive for success into a more positive approach.
There is still a long way to go for Kapanen until he is NHL-ready. He needs to break into KalPa’s Liiga team and start logging minutes with regularity. In order to do this, he will need to work on his skating and his confidence.
He needs to play at the professional level, having showcased his defensive attributes and his overall hockey sense that should guarantee him a place in Finland’s top league this year. The fact that he has such a high hockey IQ means that there is a chance for rapid progress. Even if he fell in this year’s ranking, it is too early to count him out completely, and his close grouping in the voting suggests that faith in him is still fairly high.
It will be an important year for the Finn, and if it doesn’t work out this year a change in scenery might be the best option for his future progress.