Will 1st-Round Pick Kasperi Kapanen Debut for Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014-15?

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Will 1st-Round Pick Kasperi Kapanen Debut for Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014-15?
Handout/Getty Images

Ray Shero is no longer the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins because of his inability to draft quality players frequently enough to support a front-loaded team structure.

When you have all-world competitors like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin eating up a large chunk of salary cap space, young players must be ready to go in a year or two and need to be able to step in and make contributions.

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Just look at what the Chicago Blackhawks have gotten out of Ben Smith, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. Or what the L.A. Kings received from Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli en route to a Stanley Cup this season.

That's been the difference between the Penguins and the other franchises that have been frequenting the Stanley Cup Final since 2009. New GM Jim Rutherford seems to be aware of that, and he is open to the idea of 2014 first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen making the NHL immediately.

With a roster that is still a work in progress, Rutherford pointed out recently that Kapanen could make his professional debut as early as this October. 

Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently spoke to the GM, who had this to say about the young prospect: "We have to keep in mind that Kapanen could come in and make this team. He's played with men [in Finland] for two years. He's a good player."

Being a good player is one thing. Possessing the strength and endurance necessary to complete a full NHL season is another.

The team took the step of signing Kapanen to an entry-level deal, and it seems likely that the Kuopio, Finland native will be given every chance to make Pittsburgh's opening night roster.

Could he truly make the jump from Finland's top hockey league to the most competitive league in the world? Recent history suggests that the jump might not be quite as far as it seems. Consider Pittsburgh's 2012 first-round draft pick who also went at No. 22 overall, Olli Maatta.

Maatta wasn't expected to make the Penguins following his first camp, but an injury to Kris Letang allowed him enough time and space to impress the team's brass. He ended up playing top-four minutes on the blue line and helped the team stay afloat while battling a rash of injuries.

It took a little intervention from the hockey gods to get Maatta into a Penguins uniform as a teenager, but it won't take the same series of events for Kapanen.

If anything, a set of special circumstances has already set the son of former NHL player Sami Kapanen on the path to an early entry into the NHL.

Rutherford drafted Sami back in 1995 when he was operating the Hartford Whalers. After the recent draft, Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote that Rutherford made NHL history when he selected Kasperi, becoming the first GM to ever select a father-son duo.

The current GM of the Penguins had this to say about the odd piece of hockey history:

Do you know anybody else who’s done that? We drafted Sami in 1995 and he had a son in 1996. I used to watch (Kasperi) on the ice when he just started skating and I end up drafting him. We had a good background check on him. We were surprised he was still there at 22. We had him rated a lot higher.

It was surprising to see Kapanen slide down the draft board. He was the top-ranked international skater available and was noted for his electric offensive talent. Making him an even more attractive asset was the fact that he'd been playing in a professional league since the age of 16 and has grown up with a pro player for a father.

Scouts and fans like to note bloodlines because they imply hereditary athleticism, but there's another side to that coin. 

Kapanen is more aware of what it takes to hack it in the NHL than your average prospect because he's already seen that life lived out. That theory holds some weight, as Kapanen is already noted for his professional demeanor. 

It's hard to imagine that experience not giving him at least a small advantage if he does make his debut in 2014-15.

With the Penguins looking to add a few more pieces between now and the trade deadline, Kapanen could become another part of Rutherford's attempt to expand Pittsburgh's depth. The team isn't just looking for guys that can score, though. They want players that can step in and play more than one role.

If the Penguins were going for a traditional top-six scorers/bottom-six checkers format, then Kapanen's odds would be long, but that's not the way this franchise wants to look after reshuffling their deck this summer.

Rutherford seems to be attacking the general idea that your third and fourth lines should be checkers—instead desiring the ability to roll four lines that can hang onto the puck and play strong possession hockey.

Kapanen's strengths just so happen to include a high hockey IQ, superb vision and the ability to distribute the puck creatively and accurately. He's a bit smallish at 5'10", 171 pounds, but he was smallish in the SM-liiga as well.

Can Kapanen make it at the NHL level as early as the 2014-15 season, though? The 2014 draft wasn't noted for a high number of NHL-ready prospects. Many players taken outside of the top four are considered projects that need another few years of seasoning before making the jump.

Still, if there's one prospect that could surprise and make the NHL early, it's Kapanen. The skills are there, and he's already experienced playing against larger men. Hockey is more physical in North America, but that's something else that Kapanen's bloodlines help prepare him for.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Most importantly, there's opportunity in Pittsburgh.

The franchise is in flux right now and is undergoing a series of changes in an attempt to compete with the league's truly elite organizations. If Kapanen can step in and score 10 or 15 goals without being a possession drag, then expect him to be a Penguin next season.

It will likely come down to his performance in training camp. If Kapanen doesn't look out of place in scrimmages, look for him to earn an early-season tryout in the Steel City.

At that point, just about anything can happen. Who knows, maybe Crosby has a new top-line wing and doesn't even know it yet.

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