Small silver lining to Maple Leafs’ Kapanen being out with concussion

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs shared some lousy news heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks: forward Kasperi Kapanen is out with a concussion.

Kapanen, 22, was held out of Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning for “precautionary reasons,” so it seems like the team might have determined the nature of his injury recently. It’s not clear when, exactly, Kapanen actually suffered the injury, with Jeff Veillette wondering if it’s actually something Kapanen had been dealing with for five games or so.

(Kapanen was limited to only an assist during that span, perhaps in part because he wasn’t at full-strength?)

Concussions are never really good news, obviously, but this is especially rough for Kapanen. He’s just short of his first 20-goal season with 19, and as a pending RFA, getting those counting stats could really bump up his earning potential. (Granted, he might just earn his way to the point of being too expensive to stay in Toronto, but there are worse problems to have.)

It would be a serious bummer – though certainly not unprecedented – if a concussion lingers into when the games matter the most, as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are less than a month away.

[MORE: Can the Maple Leafs make it past the first round?]

So, yeah, this is crummy both for the Maple Leafs and the winger, who’s enjoying a breakthrough season after struggling to make a full mark on the NHL during previous years.

There’s potential for at least one silver lining, however.

This could be a great opportunity for William Nylander to a) heat up with the postseason nearing and b) show that he warrants a longer run on Auston Matthews‘ wing.

That’s where Nylander is slated to line up for Toronto’s game against Chicago on Wednesday, forming an interesting line with Matthews and Andreas Johnsson. (Patrick Marleau – Kapanen’s other regular linemate with Matthews – slides to the third line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown.)

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It seems like Mike Babcock’s needed a nudge to line up Nylander with Matthews regularly, and to an extent, it’s understandable. Kapanen’s often prospered with Matthews, while Nylander occasionally shines running his own line as a center.

Still, the Maple Leafs might simply have a better chance to win if they load up with two stronger lines, as you’d at least think would be the case if Nylander pushes Kapanen down the lineup. Teams tend to lean on their top lines more often in the playoffs, so while depth is important, it might be wiser if Toronto rolled out Matthews – Nylander and John TavaresMitch Marner as two deadly duos, challenging anyone to match them in that regard.

And, again, Babs hasn’t been that eager to go with such an alignment. Nylander has more than twice as much even-strength ice time with Kadri than with Matthews, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kapanen, meanwhile, has basically been glued to Matthews and Marleau.

Perhaps it’s true that Kapanen really is the better fit as a second-line winger, while Nylander might fit better as 3C, at least when they’re both healthy. That’s not an absolute certainty, though, and it wouldn’t hurt to see if Nylander can rekindle his past magic with Matthews.

Overall, losing Kapanen still hurts, but maybe it can mean bigger things for Nylander, and the Leafs as a whole?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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