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 has 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 teams' 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. (Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
Putting Max Domi at centre, could help give Toronto's third line some offensive punch. (Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

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 Holmberg, Noah 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 offense.

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 Matthews, William Nylander, John 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.

Meanwhile, Järnkrok is as steady as they come as a third wheel, providing reliable value at both ends of the rink.

Conceptually, the line works even if there are questions about Domi's ability to hold up at center and whether Robertson is finally ready to break out at the NHL level.

It's not a perfect unit by any means, but it presents more of an offensive threat than any third line the Maple Leafs have trotted out this season thanks to the failed Fraser Minten experiment and Kämpf's presence in the 3C spot since the rookie returned to the WHL.

That means the Maple Leafs are returning to a fourth line that didn't work in the first few games of the season, and doesn't project to suddenly start humming now. The Kämpf-Reaves incompatibility quandary is impossible to resolve while both players remain in the lineup. Instead of letting it poison the entire bottom-six, Toronto is allowing that issue to reside solely with its least-used line.

While the situation is far from optimal — particularly for the team's ability to get full value out of Kämpf — it gives the Maple Leafs a chance to find the depth scoring that has eluded them all season. If Toronto is able to solve that problem, it will be well worth the cost of a few janky fourth-line shifts per night.