When a lot of the Toronto Maple Leafs depth pieces left in free agency, there were many questions as to who could fill the void left by the absence of Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase. Both players were bottom-six forwards, but were given the opportunity to succeed and thrive in a top-six role when they were called upon to do so.
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Given the Maple Leafs cap crunch, it was once again going to be another year of using the Money Ball playbook in order to find quality and effective players at cheap and reasonable cap hits. There was always one name that I was hoping the Maple Leafs would consider bringing in. That name, was Calle Järnkrok.
On July 15th, general manager Kyle Dubas signed him to a four-year, $8.4 million contract. There was criticism for the signing online, given how is 31 years old and had a mixed season in 2021-22– finding success with the Seattle Kraken, but a disappointing one after being traded to the Calgary Flames. However, there was value to be had with Järnkrok and there was potential that this signing could be a big win for Dubas.
Järnkrok’s Play is Paying Off
41 games into Järnkrok’s tenure with the Maple Leafs, it’s clear that this signing is starting to pay off. Much like David Kampf being the most underrated signing last season, Järnkrok is definitely continuing that trend as signing him is looking like it was the right move.
The Maple Leafs are getting the type of play that they needed from Järnkrok as someone who can be a solid depth piece, but still produce at an effective pace given his type of play. He provides a highly energetic style with great speed on the forecheck but manages to have good results within his own end as he’s a strong defensive minded player.
Offensively throughout his career, Järnkrok has been very consistent as he’s always been a steady secondary scorer who can provide between 30 and 40 points. This season, he’s already produced 11 goals and 23 points. He’s on-pace for 18 goals, 20 assists and 38 points, which would be the most for his career in all categories. Even his underlying numbers at five-on-five are good results as he has a 53.85 goals for percentage, a 51.92 high danger chances for percentage and a 64.71 high danger goals for percentage. Decent results for a player who can play on any line.
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What catches your eye with Järnkrok is his speed and transitional play. No matter what situation he’s in, he’s constantly pushing the pace of play quickly– catching players off guard. The most perfect example is his recent goal against the New York Islanders where he manages to blow by and catch the defenders off guard for a breakaway goal.
That speed and offensive instincts from Järnkrok to transition from defense to offense is a big addition to this team and why his play is a big part of their success this season.
Versatility and Situational Play
Much like the use of Alexander Kerfoot, Järnkrok is another player that provides more versatility throughout the lineup, but with more consistent production.
In a preseason game, Järnkrok played in a top line role with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and looked comfortable in that spot. While he was going to start off in the bottom-six, he could always work his way up the lineup as the season progressed. If head coach Sheldon Keefe needed another option to move up, Järnkrok would be the first player with his work ethic and drive.
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In late November when going through some lineup changes, Keefe promoted Järnkrok to the second line wing alongside captain John Tavares and Marner. Keefe mentioned how his “game is starting to trend in the right direction” and deserved the chance to be in an elevated role as a result. When he got promoted, the production started to come as well as he scored a goal in his first game in the top-six. Since then, Järnkrok is sixth in team scoring with 17 points in 20 games.
Along with the added consistent minutes in the top-six, Järnkrok continues to remain a fixture on the team’s penalty kill. He’s averaging 1:35 per game while shorthanded and remains productive, scoring a shorthanded goal and adding two assists. His speed and ability to pressure the puck carrier while killing a good amount of time falls in line with the way the team prioritizes their play to be aggressive and effective as possible.
That kind of smarts and play is precisely why the Maple Leafs brought him in and he’s been noticeable every time he’s on the ice.
Permanent Fix for Top-Six?
Järnkrok has been great and productive for the Maple Leafs in a top-six role as of late, but is he the answer they need in that spot? Although his play has been stellar, the short answer is possibly. This was even a topic on the Maple Leafs Lounge and I discussed this with fellow Maple Leafs writer, Shane Seney.
Järnkrok continues to impress and run away with that spot, though the Maple Leafs could look to a more consistent producer to compliment the second line of Tavares and William Nylander. The Maple Leafs could be in the market for a top-six and have plenty of options to make a big move ahead of the trade deadline. Whether they acquire someone like Timo Meier or even add Ryan O’Reilly, they’re an upgrade over Järnkrok and his more defensive minded style of play.
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As much as Järnkrok has filled the void for now, you’re always on the hunt for a player that could provide more upside. While he may eventually find himself back in a bottom-six role, given his play with more minutes this season– and if any injuries occur– Järnkrok will definitely be moved up in the lineup.
Coming into the season, Järnkrok was an offseason acquisition that was going to fly under the radar. Given how he has moved up in the lineup and provided some quality secondary scoring for the Maple Leafs, he’s been extremely effective for a team that boasts some highly offensive talents.
While he may not be a permanent answer for them as a top-six forward, he hasn’t looked out of place at all. His low cap-hit and effective play is benefitting the Maple Leafs greatly.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and NHL.
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