David Kampf has taken one offensive zone faceoff in the first three games of the Maple Leafs’ first-round series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That isn’t exactly a new trend for the 27-year-old center who arrive via free agency this past summer. But it’s notable nonetheless. Kampf started just 24.2 percent of his regular-season shifts in the offensive zone in 2021-22, swallowing up his team’s toughest assignments in a manner that, in turn, allowed Sheldon Keefe to unleash his big guns on comparatively weaker matchups.
Clearly, that strategy worked, as the likes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner put forth career years helped, in part, by their 61.7 and 60.3 percent offensive zone start shares, respectively.
Kampf did some seriously heavy lifting, and was therefore always viewed as an important cog in the Leafs’ machine even prior to the playoffs, giving the team its first effective shutdown center since, uh…Jay McClement?
Jeez, that bar is low.
Nevertheless, Kampf was brilliant at what he did, filling a meaningful role that had been vacant on Leafs’ roster for quite some time. And while most lauded him for that already, few could have predicted just how impactful Kampf would become once the playoffs began.
The two goals he’s scored, both coming at extremely opportune moments in the game, are nice. But Kampf will always be judged for how well he prevents opponents from putting pucks in his net rather than how often he puts it in theirs. And despite shouldering the heaviest defensive responsibility of any Leaf forward to this point in the series, taking draws almost exclusively in the defensive zone and often against the Lightning’s heavy hitters such as Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov, Kampf has not been on the ice for a single goal against at even strength thus far.
Not one. Zero.
In fact, Kampf’s goal to make it 3-0 in Game 3 managed to tilt the ice in the opposite direction, with Kampf having now outscored the Lightning 1-0 at five-on-five entering Sunday’s crucial Game 4.
Given the circumstances he’s managed to do it in, that’s a remarkable feat, affording the Leafs a clear edge in the depth battle between the two teams that has, so far, defined the series.
But Kampf hasn’t been the only one moving the needle outside of the Big Four.
After spending this past offseason as expansion fodder, Alexander Kerfoot has evolved into the Maple Leafs’ swiss army knife, having played every single forward position this season aside from fourth-line right-wing, and looking pretty darn good while doing it.
The playoffs have only further tested Kerfoot’s versatility. And his strong performance regardless of particular usage gives his coach the most valuable asset they can have: Options.
Keefe likes to tinker. And while someone with a lesser roster might do so in vain to slam a square peg in a round hole, Kerfoot instead gives Keefe the option of, say, sheltering Michael Bunting in his return from injury by jumping up to the top line alongside Matthews and Marner. And not only has Kerfoot managed to tread water playing with two of the league’s best pure talents, that line actually took a noted step forward once he was added to it, showing hopeful signs of breaking through against a stringent Tampa checking attack led by the criminally underrated Anthony Cirelli.
“You need to be able to adjust to what the other team is doing. You need to at times fill in due to injuries or to give a line a boost,” explained Sheldon Keefe on the morning of Game 4.
“He (Kerfoot) has just always been that guy for us, that’s stepped whenever we’ve needed it…He’s a very important player for us”
Those are some true words Keefe is speaking there.
And, frankly, the same could be said for Pierre Engvall, whose own redemption arc in the eyes of both the coaching staff and fanbase this season has arguably been the starkest of all.
It wasn’t too long ago that Keefe was using the media to publicly prod Engvall to play better, with Engvall’s frequent misplays landing him on the roster bubble and plunging his future in the organization into doubt.
The Engvall who showed up in the regular season this year was a player transformed, as the 25-year-old finally put his massive 6’5 frame to use in the corners and evolved into an effective two-way forward who, like Kerfoot, gave Keefe the roster flexibility he’d lacked to this point in his Leafs tenure.
The Athletic’s Joshua Kloke wrote a phenomenal piece on the in-depth strides Engvall has taken as a pro this year and I’d recommend you go check it out.
Similarly to the Leafs’ other depth forwards, the playoffs have seen Engvall take another important individual step, as his three-assist effort and terrific defensive performance in Game 3, particularly in the game’s dying minutes with the Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, playing a big part in handing them a 2-1 series lead.
Engvall’s flashiest play of the night came when he lept over a sprawling Stamkos at Toronto’s blueline late in the third period to spring himself and Ilya Mikheyev on a two-on-oh that ended with Engvall selflessly giving Mikeheyev the easy open-net dagger.
Sometimes, narratives write themselves. And in the case of this article, that play was poetry in motion.
Mikheyev’s two goals to this point in the series might have come on a pair of empty netters in the same good. It would be easy to discount them for that. But those easy looks are something of an olive branch extended to Mikheyev from hockey gods, making up for his cavalcade of grade-A chances helped by his team-leading mark in rush attempts.
To have a player with Mikheyev’s speed and length in the bottom-six is something of a secret weapon for a coach. And so far, Keefe has wielded it quite well.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, obviously. Keefe is certainly hoping for a breakout from Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and especially John Tavares, who has been rendered useless thus far. But the job his depth forwards have done to shoulder the load has been crucial in its own right, and could very well be enough to tilt the series just enough in Toronto’s favor for them to shut the door.