PHILADELPHIA - When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Penguins were on the clock preparing to make the 22nd-overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft on Friday evening, the Flyers faithful that had packed Wells Fargo Center booed their hated rival.
They booed, and booed, and continued to boo even as Pittsburgh’s selection, Finnish forward Kasperi Kapanen, took the stage and donned his new black and gold jersey.
And while that certainly could have been intimidating, it didn’t faze Kapanen in the least. That’s because he considers himself a Philadelphian, having spent much of his childhood in the city while his father Sami, an NHL veteran of 831 games, played here from 2002-08.
“I lived here for six years. I consider this my home, so it’s really an honor to be drafted in Philly,” Kapanen said. “It’s kind of a twist going to Pittsburgh, but that’s not a problem. They’ve got a great franchise and I’m really happy to go there.
“I thought (the fans) were going to boo me so bad, but luckily it wasn’t that bad. I survived,” he smiled.
And despite his ties to Philly and the Flyers, Kapanen couldn’t be more thrilled to be drafted by the Penguins.
“You just know that the world’s best players are playing there,” Kapanen said. “Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, they’ve been playing really well these past five years. I’m just really stoked to be there.”
Ready for another twist? Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford actually drafted Kasperi’s father Sami, in the fourth round (87th overall) in the 1995 NHL Draft when he was the GM of the Hartford Whalers.
Rutherford was thrilled to see that the younger Kapanen was still available when it was the Penguins’ turn to pick, as Pittsburgh had him rated much higher on their draft board. Kapanen was listed as No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of European skaters for this year’s draft.
“We had him rated seventh (overall) on our list, and it’s exciting for me because I drafted his dad,” Rutherford smiled. “I don’t know how often that happens, that you draft a dad and his son.”
And in yet another twist, Kapanen, 17, has actually been playing alongside his 40-year-old father for the past two seasons, with KalPa of the Finnish Elite League.
“It was a dream come true, for me and for him,” Kapanen said. “I mean, he’s been my influence in everything. He’s been my coach, my trainer, my fan, my dad all at the same time. So that’s special and I’m really excited that I got to play with him.”
Kapanen describes himself as being more of a finesse player than his father, while Rutherford added that Kasperi is bigger and stronger than Sami.
“I think skating is my biggest strength, and just playing with the puck,” Kapanen said. “Passing, shooting, goal scoring, I think those are the ones that stick out for me. I think defensively, I have to be better if I want to play in the National Hockey League someday. It’s a league for men; it’s the best league in the world. So I’ve got to prepare myself and we’ll see what happens.”
What works in Kapanen’s favor is that he’s already been playing alongside men in the Finnish Elite League. He made history in Finland last year when he made his debut in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, as a 16-year-old and skated in 13 games. He then played all of the 2013-14 season with KalPa, totaling seven goals and 47 points in 47 games.
“I think when you play in the men’s league, you have to bring your A game every game or else you’re going to get benched and you’re not going to play well,” Kapanen said. “So you’ve always got to be ready, prepare, you can’t just kind of show up and kind of give 80 percent. It’s not enough. You always have to go 100 percent and that’s it. I think I matured because of that.”
Rutherford believes that he has.
“He’s a great skater. He’s already played with men,” Rutherford said. “So his development has moved along a little more than other players. So this is a really good pick for us.”
While Kapanen wouldn’t rule out playing another season in Finland, he was clear that his goal is to take that black and gold jersey onto the ice.
“Well of course, I’m going to try and take a spot on the roster,” he said. “I mean, it’s the wrong mentality if you think that you can’t do it. It’s what I’m going to try to do.”
--Michelle Crechiolo, Pittsburgh Penguins
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