A lot of evaluating the Leafs this season has been trying to make the simple assessment “are they better than last season,” as they were plenty good last season too, yet apparently not good enough. GM Kyle Dubas by and large opted to pass on making any major shake-ups, quadrupling down on his core and instead tinkering at the roster’s fringes.
Through the first dozen games of the season, the Leafs looked about the same team they’ve been. A talented team that would win more than they’d lose but were still prone to periods of frustrating inconsistency. They lost to underdogs in the Sharks and Kings and Senators, but just when you were ready to count them out, they’d push back with solid performances against better teams. Those who’ve been following along have become familiar with the plot of that movie and how it’s ended.
As more games have piled up though, it’s becoming clear that David Kämpf is providing at least one tangible difference to what they’ve been in the past, and his play offers a glimpse of what might even be a “better” group than previous iterations. Last year’s Leafs were good defensively, but they didn’t have a true shutdown centre the way they do with Kämpf (to go along with the surprisingly well-rounded game of Ondrej Kase).
Among regular players, no NHLer has been put on the ice for fewer offensive zone starts than Kämpf, who’s seen just 15 O-zone draws through 17 games, which is about 100 less than his teammate Mitch Marner. And even with that Kämpf is a positive when it comes to possession numbers, shots and shot attempts, expected goals and all the rest. Tuesday night with the Leafs up 2-0 in the dying minutes, Marner and Auston Matthews went over the boards with Kämpf to close the door. His reach and defensive conscience have made him an integral part of this forward group.
Kämpf’s Tuesday showing was the physical embodiment of what he can be, what the Leafs want him to be, and how their roster can shake out better than last season. He played 15 minutes, 12 of which was at even strength, where he saw zero O-zone starts, six D-zone starts, and had an expected goals number of 65 per cent. All that means is the Leafs generated more and better chances for than they did against while he handled tough defensive minutes.
Because what he does isn’t sexy, I wanted to actually go through Kämpf's game to show people the little things he does that help the Leafs go from defence to offence. I wanted to show how he prioritizes D-side positioning, and why his natural bent towards defence allows his teammates to be better, offensively as well.
We'll start light, in that he simply reads plays well. He’s coming back into D-zone coverage from the top of the faceoff circle closest to us here, watching the play unfold. His good read doesn’t allow Nashville possession of the puck in a dangerous part of the D-zone.
The clip below is our longest, but best encapsulates the point being made. Kämpf is starting in a similar spot as the clip above, but he stops before chasing the play behind the net. Seeing the puck goes up high and that his D aren’t net-front, he defends that area, tying up the Predators' forward. That pile stops a shot getting through, he helps the Leafs win the puck and gets skating the other way, and there he makes a good touch on the puck to Kase. From defence to offence, just like that.
Below Kämpf is first on the forecheck, but when the D cuts back he does what he almost always does -- he backs up and gets on the defensive side of things, making sure he doesn’t get trapped low. When the puck gets pushed out into the neutral zone, he’s there a step before Nashville’s player, able to push the puck back from Toronto’s end, creating a chance the other way.
He’s at the top of the screen in the GIF below. Watch him notice that Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly is a step ahead of him, and immediately pull the parachute and pull back to cover for the D-man.
When he does get trapped below the goal line, he works like hell to get back. He starts in the bottom left here, but look at the pride he takes in getting back above the puck.
In this clip below he starts on the left side of the picture, and forechecks while staying above his guy. Then he pulls out and acts as F3 (out of the frame), surveying the Nashville breakout. Then he gets above the middle, snuffs anything dangerous out, and ends up taking the body as Nashville dumps the puck in.
Those clips make the point, but watching his defensive positioning over a hockey game is seriously fascinating. Any offence he gets is because the way he plays defence moves the puck the other way, and sometimes the other team just flat-out makes mistakes. You can basically stop the frame at any point during one of his shifts and he’ll be on the right side of things defensively…
Again, and again…
And again. He’s got a strong positional conscience.
Now, let’s not get it mistaken: he’s not a gifted offensive player, but a big part of that is he doesn’t seem to care to be, so much as he knows his role and plays it well. In Tuesday night’s game Kämpf had a 2-on-1 with Ondrej Kase where he hit the D-man in the shin pad at about knee height, and if it hadn’t hit the D, it might’ve hit Kase’s thigh. There are moments that leave you wanting there, as there are around the net where it’s not entirely clear if Kämpf’s able to raise the puck or not.
But he can handle it just fine, and he does get himself into good spots as you saw on the Leafs' second goal last night. I wouldn’t be stunned if an 82-game season saw Kämpf score 10 by virtue of playing enough minutes with good players and his solid positioning leading to enough opportunities.
In the end though, the Leafs won’t care about all that. If he can handle tough assignments and get the puck going the right way, the Leafs will have an asset they didn’t possess in the post-season last year, which could free up some easier match-ups for their best players in home games. If you’re looking for ways the Leafs could be different this year than in those previous, a true shutdown third line centre would be at the top of the list.