TORONTO — Earlier this month, when Alexander Kerfoot returned to Tampa for the first time since the Toronto Maple Leafs’ crushing overtime loss to the Lightning in Game 6 of their first-round series, all those amplified sensations from that agonizing defeat came whooshing back.
The bus pulls in front of the same hotel. You get dressed in the same visitors’ room. Soak in the same pregame presentation. Smell the same warm Florida air. Gaze across the red line at the same blue and white uniforms.
“Last time we were here was the playoff series, right? You think about that. You think of those moments. It was a great season up until that point. Then, all of a sudden, you’re hit with such bitter disappointment right at the end,” Kerfoot said during that trip back to Central Florida.
“Places have a tendency to provide those emotions. Certain things — songs, music — have a tendency to bring back emotions.
“It’s kinda like going home. You go home, and you feel different at home. Or you listen to a song that played at a big moment in your life — that brings back emotions. So, you come down here, and right away you recognize that tough loss.”
Understandably, Kerfoot isn’t eager to rehash the past, particularly amid his team’s incredible 15-game run without a regulation loss. He and Leaf Nation share that in common.
Still, it’s commendable that he owns his gaffes from Toronto’s near-clinch in Game 6 (“I don’t think I’m unlucky. I think I made a pretty bad play in that game,” he said) and that he’ll openly take responsibility for an underwhelming start to his contract season.
The good news for everyone involved: He’s now finding his feet.
Kerfoot, remember, arrived in this hockey-mad mecca in 2019 with the deck stacked against him.
On the scale of fan favourites, the versatile forward was never going to match the bombastic, charismatic heights of local hero and pure centre Nazem Kadri, the heart-on-sleeve, homegrown first-rounder for whom Kerfoot and one-year rental defenceman Tyson Barrie were traded on a sunny Canada Day.
As the surviving member of the Maple Leafs’ middle-class forwards, Kerfoot has ignored the spurts of trade rumours and his exposure in the Seattle expansion draft. He sharpened his two-way game, became a relied-upon penalty killer, and adapted his game to skate on Lines 1 through 4.
The 28-year-old has been entrenched as a member of the Maple Leafs expanded leadership group for a couple years now. He is the players’ union representative and the coaching staff’s go-to safety option.
“He’s a guy that I don’t think gets enough love from the media or anything like that,” Mitch Marner memorably said, back in January. “But I’ll tell you one thing: He gets a lot of love in our locker room.”
Kerfoot demurred and deflected: “Mitch has everyone’s back. I don’t know if I get too much love or not enough.”
With so many feel-good stories in the Maple Leafs’ room these days — Marner is streaking! Auston Matthews is back to beating goalies clean and often! Told ya we bet on the right goalies! — Kerfoot finds himself in a compelling slot.
Kerfoot is a smart, thoughtful athlete, one affectionately called “Harvard” by his teammates on occasion, a nod to his alma mater.
He is a team-first athlete genuinely happy the crew is stacking wins.
He’s also a harsh self-critic who needn’t scroll Twitter or chat with a reporter to know his individual performance has declined from 2021-22, when he chipped in 13 goals and reached a career-best 51 points.
Much like Michael Bunting, David Kämpf, Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl, Kerfoot is a pending UFA whose future remains TBD. Not only are meaningful extension talks on the back burner, but with GM Kyle Dubas on an expiring deal of his own, it’s unclear who will be calling the shots on July 1.
“Maybe in the off-season you’re thinking about stuff like that. I’m not thinking about it now,” Kerfoot said.
Finish with a single-digit goal total, however, and it will be difficult for Kerfoot to demand his current $3.5-million salary on the open market under a relative flat cap.
Kerfoot is striving for consistency and insists the ambiguity around his future isn’t affecting his play, however.
“No. I think that stuff gets overplayed,” Kerfoot said.
“If I was signed for eight years or if I was signed for one year, and I was going through a rough stretch, I would feel like s—. It’s not been like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen next year?’ It’s just… you feel bad when you feel like you’re not playing to the level you can.”
Kerfoot’s empty-netter last week in Dallas marked just the second goal he had scored in a stretch of 39 regular-season games. His assist rate (10 so far) has dipped, and he’s taking penalties more frequently than last season, too.
Kerfoot is just one member of Toronto’s bottom six antsy to help balance the league’s most top-heavy scoresheet.
“I still got work to do on my game. I know I need to play better. I know I can play better,” Kerfoot said. “I still have a ways to go, and I expect more out of myself.”
Are you the type to put a lot of pressure on yourself?
“Maybe… I would leave it at that: I can play better.”
In Kerfoot’s defence is his defence.
For the first time in five years, he’s on track for more takeaways (18) than giveaways (14), and he is starting fewer shifts in the offensive zone (38.8 per cent) than ever before.
“He’s a better player than his production would show,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe asserts.
Some of Kerfoot’s offensive sluggishness can be chalked up to usage and bum luck. He’s a career 12.8 per cent shooter dealing with a career-worst 8.3 shooting percentage.
Recently, he’s found ways to pop his name on the scoresheet, drawing two huge primary assists on the night Marner tied Toronto’s streak record.
Kerfoot has quietly gathered seven points in seven games, none prettier than his one-timed strike Tuesday against the Ducks’ John Gibson — the same goalie who had stood tall on one of his two missed penalty shots this fall. That goal marked his 200th career point.
He followed it up with a second snipe in Tuesday’s 7-0 rout, a huge night for the supporting cast, registering his first-ever multi-goal night for Toronto and doubling his goal output in 60 minutes.
“It’s big. I haven’t put many pucks in the net this year,” Kerfoot told reporters, postgame. “It’s a long season. Just gotta keep building.”
We’re seeing traction in a critical campaign for the player and the organization.
“Anytime you get your name on the sheet, I think it goes a long way, especially for a guy that hasn’t been there for a while and isn’t producing at the rate you’d expect,” Keefe said.
“My message to Kerf is to focus on the things he does quite well. Even on days when he’s not on the scoresheet, he does a lot of things that help us win — and we’ve won a lot of hockey games.
“He plays important minutes for us. We need his speed. We need his energy. We need his defensive awareness, his penalty-killing. All those things contribute to winning.
“All of our guys that haven’t been producing like they would expect, or we would expect, you have to focus on that. You can’t lose your way on the other side of it. Because all of a sudden, maybe you’re scoring a bit more, but we’re losing games.”