Maple Leafs choose lesser of two evils with bottom-six shakeup

Maple Leafs choose lesser of two evils with bottom-six shakeup

Toronto’s bottom-six group features an unsolvable Kampf-Reaves conundrum, but the team’s latest attempt to work around it could be an improvement.

In a four-day span between June 28 and July 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ bottom-six forward group evolved in a way that almost guaranteed it would be a dysfunctional part of the team this season.

Just before free agency opened, the Maple Leafs signed David Kämpf to a four-year contract worth $9.6 million, and the first player the team inked on July 1 was Ryan Reaves.

Kämpf’s had a low enough offensive ceiling that he was best used as a fourth liner, but the 28-year-old had averaged more than 15 minutes of ice time per night in each of the prior seasons due to extended penalty-killing usage — and an intense diet of defensive-zone shifts.

The veteran costs a lot for a fourth-line center, but in 2021-22 and 2022-23 his role extended beyond that as he soaked up difficult assignments with the sixth-lowest offensive-zone start rate in the NHL (26.2%) and the second-most penalty killing time among all forwards (420:22). His value came as a defensive specialist.

That value was instantly eroded when he was paired with Reaves — one of the NHL’s purest enforcers.

Reaves is best used in the offensive zone where he can play to his strengths laying hits on defenders and trying to sustain physical cycle play to wear down opponents. Putting him out for defensive-zone draws, or against other team’s top offensive threats, is asking for trouble.

Using Kämpf the way Reaves should be used minimizes the defensive gifts the Maple Leafs paid a premium for. Using Reaves the way Kämpf should be used is extremely dangerous.

In the two players’ 5v5 time together this season the Maple Leafs have been outscored 5-0 in just 30:48 with an expected goal rate of 35.05%. And yet, after the team’s latest line shuffle that included Max Domi moving to center and Nick Robertson coming up from the AHL, the two are together on the fourth line again — and it’s probably for the best.

Putting Max Domi at centre, could help give Toronto’s third line some offensive punch.

The Kämpf-Reaves issue is an unsolvable problem as long as both are in the lineup, but splitting the two up has been disastrous in recent weeks. A fourth line of Pontus HolmbergNoah Gregor, and Reaves has accomplished very little, while moving Kämpf to the third unit has lessened that unit’s offensive punch.

Other players who’ve appeared on the third group — like Domi, Matthew Knies, and Calle Järnkrok — also deserve criticism, but Kämpf simply isn’t an offensive creator. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said as much on Saturday, calling the center “a guy that’s gonna give you everything he has, but [offense is] not his primary thing.”

When the Maple Leafs split up Reaves and Kämpf to allow the latter to do his thing defensively while the former can be sheltered from tough spots, the end result is a do-nothing fourth line and a third line that’s unlikely to create offence.

That’s what the team has done for much of this season — and its bottom-six has gotten just six goals from forwards not named Auston MatthewsWilliam NylanderJohn Tavares, or Mitch Marner — two of which came from Tyler Bertuzzi on the power play.

Now the Maple Leafs have a third line with a real chance to light the lamp. Domi has struggled but he’s a talented distributor, and Robertson has been tearing up the AHL this season — thanks in part to his stellar shot.

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