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With Oliver Kapanen having a strong season and an impressive start at the Worlds, many are asking if it’s possible that he could start 2024-25 with the Habs.  That might not be the right question to ask, however.

First off, he needs to sign a contract.  For the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume he does get a deal done with Montreal after the tournament; that certainly seems to be the plan by all accounts.  If that happens, he can attend training camp with the Canadiens but would have to be loaned back to Sweden if he doesn’t make the big club; Laval would not be an option for him.  To be fair, that limitation will play a role in Montreal’s decision-making about where Kapanen plays in 2024-25.

Now, as to the question of whether he could play in the NHL next season, the answer is a pretty easy yes.  Kapanen has a strong defensive foundation which means he could handle himself in a limited capacity at the NHL level.

That’s why the question of could he play in the NHL isn’t the right one to ask.  The better one is should Kapanen play in Montreal next year.

If we look at what the opening night depth chart would be right now, not a lot would be different from the one that finished the year.  Tanner Pearson and Colin White would be gone and Kirby Dach would be back.  It’s also fair to say there’s an expectation that the Canadiens will try to add an impactful forward, either through trade or free agency.

This roster still has some veteran players pegged to fill lower-level roles like Christian Dvorak, Jake Evans, Brendan Gallagher, and Joel Armia.  Kapanen isn’t far enough along in his development to confidently say he could beat out some of those players.  If you look at the centre spot – his natural position – there’s Nick Suzuki along with Dach, Dvorak, and Evans.  Kapanen probably isn’t supplanting any of those players so if he was to make Montreal’s opening roster, he’d be on the wing.

But with the winger depth they have (which should be boosted if Alex Newhook shifts back to the wing with Dach’s return), Kapanen isn’t cracking the top six and even the top nine is a stretch as they’ll likely default to veterans in that spot if for no other reason than to try to help some trade values.

So where does that leave Kapanen?  Maybe in a fourth line winger spot.  Could he hold his own there?  Sure.  But we also know that Martin St. Louis isn’t a big fan of playing the fourth line too much, a fate Michael Pezzetta knows all too well.  Unless Kapanen could earn a penalty killing spot, he’d be in the same spot as Pezzetta, an even-strength-only player.  That means on a good night, he might crack the ten-minute mark while averaging less.

From a development standpoint, is having a young player play that minimal of a role the best course of action?  Kapanen just signed with Timra in Sweden, a team that isn’t exactly loaded with top-end talent.  Accordingly, it stands to reason that he could be an all-situations player for them.  That would push his ATOI into the 16-18-minute range with special teams time.  For a player entering his age-21 season next year, that type of role at a higher level than he played at this season (the SHL is viewed as a stronger league than Liiga), that sounds a whole lot better to me than fighting for limited minutes with the Canadiens.

One player who this situation reminds me of is former Hab Artturi Lehkonen.  He played in Finland after being drafted, then went to the SHL and played there until he was ready to make the jump and play in a real role, not just a depth one.  Lehkonen had his ups and downs with Montreal, no doubt, but he played an important role with the Canadiens for a while.  Their patience was rewarded and repeating that process with Kapanen makes sense.

Let’s look ahead to next summer.  Dvorak, Armia, Evans, and Pezzetta are all unrestricted free agents in 2025.  Some could return but it’s fair to say they all won’t.  Right off the bat, there will be more space for Kapanen to have an opportunity at a real role, one where he could play 12-14 minutes a night (just like a certain former #62).  Coming off a full season in Sweden playing big minutes should make that a fairly seamless transition, just like Lehkonen.

It’s great to see Kapanen having some success for Finland at the Worlds and show that his strong playoff showing with KalPa this spring wasn’t just a short-term fluke.  There is some legitimate offensive upside but he’s going to have a better shot at developing and honing that playing big minutes in Sweden over fighting to stay in the lineup on the fourth line.

When it comes to Kapanen, it’s not a matter of asking if he could play for the Habs as the answer is pretty clearly yes.  But unless something changes with the composition of Montreal’s roster where a lot of their depth pieces disappear, the answer to the better question of should he play is a no.  Patience is the better play, just as it was with Lehkonen in the past.