The hidden strength of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the key to lasting success
This article was written by Mira Posluns, who is part of the Professional Hockey Writers Association x To Hockey With Love Mentorship Program. This program pairs aspiring writers with established association members across North America to create opportunities for marginalized people who have not traditionally been published on larger hockey-covering platforms.
To Hockey With Love is a weekly newsletter covering a range of hockey topics – from scandals of the week to critical analysis of the sport.
It’s a known fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs devote 75% of their forward ceiling space to their « main four ». The real question is how do they manage to have two solid bottom lines for a little more of the price they spend on Auston Matthews alone?
The Leafs may have a famous four-heart, but their hidden strength comes from their back six, who only earn around $12-13 million on a daily comp.
One player who has made himself indispensable to the team is Alexander Kerfoot, a forward of the last six who has had success with any mix of players he has been put with.
« I think it’s just about knowing your linemates, knowing what they’re doing, and being able to lean into that a little bit more, » Kerfoot said of filling spots on so many different lines.
« If you play with shooters, try to give them pucks in the right place, and if you play with guys who like to forecheck, throw a few more pucks. »
No matter the situation, Kerfoot knows how to be successful with his teammates, especially on the line of control and shorthanded.
This has not always been the case however. When Kerfoot came to the Leafs from Colorado, he was not a defensive forward.
« When I was at Colorado, I played a more offensive role, » Kerfoot said. « It’s kind of a full 180 here. With so many talented guys here, I haven’t been in as many offensive situations, but I’ve come to appreciate the defensive side of the game and be responsible at this end. »
The Leafs have done a stellar job finding players to fill the roles they need for little money. It’s the most important part of their success, especially on streaks when their best players are having trouble and not producing as they should.
In the last six aside from Kerfoot, David Kampf was a solid third- or fourth-line center for the Leafs for a few years, earning just $1.5 million a year. He has played consistently shorthanded and even had a short scoring streak with three goals in six games this season, between Feb. 18 and March 1.
Although the numbers are only small, the Leafs have also managed to increase their penalty percentage from their drop level in the 2018-19 season, no doubt thanks to their substantial increase in depth, acquiring Kerfoot and Kampf.
Without those players, the Leafs also wouldn’t be able to meet the trade deadlines that set them up for playoff success. With their last six cheap players, they were able to make big trades at the deadline, like acquiring Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, while trading very few players to make room.
« It’s been really good, » said Zach Aston-Reese, a consistent fourth line for the Leafs. “Noel Acciari is a guy who’s been on the fourth line for a long time and he’s very good at it. He’s got a ton of points and had a good run with Boston and Florida, so that’s really exciting.
The Leafs won’t be able to go on for long. Almost all of their forward depth and powerful penalty killers will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, with expanded resumes and skills after their time with the team.
The Leafs won’t have the space to pay Kerfoot more than his current salary of $3.5 million next year while they still have their core four and there are certainly other teams that will. better deals to such a valuable player both ways.
While re-signing Kerfoot and Kampf would be the best option, the Leafs are forced to search the league for someone to step up and fill their roles for less money.
From their own backyard, the Leafs could conjure up Pontus Holmberg, a waiting RFA who is currently earning $827,500 on a two-way contract. It would be much easier to sign and deal with him as an RFA and he certainly has some emerging skills.
Holmberg had 13 points in 37 games with the Leafs this season before being reassigned to the Toronto Marlies after the big trade from St. Louis and was relatively strong as a fourth-line center. He also had success on the special team, scoring a power-play goal against the Arizona Coyotes, even with his limited power-play minutes.
The Leafs’ 2018 draft pick even moved to center Kerfoot and has since traded Pierre Engvall a few times when the lines were mixed up, adjusting well to playing with a new fourth line very often, much like Kerfoot and Kampf.
The Leafs could also turn to the KHL at this point, which they have had success with in the past. Their last major signing in the KHL resulted in the acquisition of Ilya Mikheyev, who was a very successful depth forward for the team despite being held up due to injury.
A KHL player that Corey Pronman, Athleticism The senior NHL prospect writer who thinks he has a chance to sign with an NHL team is Konstantin Okulov.
Okulov is a winger who has contributed to CSKA Moscow’s success over the past six seasons and who Pronman says is a suspected NHL target the Leafs may be interested in.
“The Leafs are a big market club that aggressively recruits these guys,” Pronman said. “You see that Dubas often flies to Europe to recruit in person. And due to the limited mintage capital, they have places in the market.
Okulov couldn’t replace Kampf in the center role but he could be an addition to a third or fourth line with a good shot.
Whatever happens, the Leafs won’t survive their cold streaks without the solid, inexpensive low sixes they’ve managed to maintain in recent playoff attempts.
For John Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain and part of the “main four,” being backed by the bottom two lines is a big part of postseason success.
« For teams that win the Stanley Cup or have a lot of success, depth is a big thing, » said Tavares, who plays on the Leafs’ top two lines. « They don’t always get the headlines or the attention that other lines or other players may have, but their roles are just as important. »
He also noted how important it is for the final six to be recognized for their work by the rest of the team.
« Everyone contributes in their own way and that’s important. [to] make these guys feel like these roles are just as valuable as [others] and how important they are to the team, and they play as big a role in winning as everyone else,” Tavares said.