Maple Leafs’ Kerfoot Finding Consistency in Utility Role

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL as of late, bringing their fans out of a panic after they had a less-than-stellar start to the season. Their subpar start was largely due to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares having slow starts, by their standards anyways.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Daily Download

But after those three found their stride, the conversation shifted to not getting enough depth scoring. And really, that’s been the only consistent team issue the Maple Leafs have had all year; having everybody on the team clicking at once. And with players like Ondrej Kase and Michael Bunting finding their footing once again, it would appear things are finally coming together.

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If you were to think of players who have been consistently good all year long, the obvious answer is William Nylander. But one player who’s quietly having a career year is forward Alex Kerfoot. He has ten points in 16 games so far this year, and he’s been riding somewhat of a hot streak with eight points in his last eight games, all at even strength.

Despite seeing underwhelming results in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 regular seasons, Kerfoot has seemed to find another gear since last year’s playoffs. And lots of it is due to his ability to slide into different spots in the lineup, and take on multiple roles.

Maple Leafs’ Trade for Kerfoot Makes Him Look Worse Than He is

Ask any Maple Leafs fan about the Nazem Kadri-Tyson Barrie trade with Colorado in July 2019, and they’ll cringe. And you can’t blame them for it, because it looked like a great trade for the Maple Leafs initially. With John Tavares added to the mix prior to the 2018-19 season, the Maple Leafs didn’t really have a need for Kadri on the third line, at least not at his salary of $4.5 million. Plus, Kadri was coming off his second straight playoffs in which he was suspended early in the series.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs would be getting a right-handed defenseman capable of 50-60 points in Barrie, and what they thought would be Kadri’s replacement in Kerfoot. The Vancouver native was coming off 42 and 43-point seasons, respectively, and was four years younger than Kadri.

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Unfortunately, Barrie was badly misused by then-head coach Mike Babcock at the start of the 2019-20 season and never really fit into the system, even after Sheldon Keefe took over. And on the other hand, Kerfoot had trouble finding his offensive game from the season before. He tallied 28 points in 2019-20 and 23 points in 2020-21, while Kadri rediscovered his offensive game in Colorado and became a fan favourite there the same way he was in Toronto.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Injuries May Have Prevented Trade

Although it took Kerfoot a while to find some consistency, he finally looks like the version we all expected to see when the Maple Leafs made the trade in 2019-20. In Colorado, he was used in a role in which he would slide into the top-six and play alongside guys like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen if any injuries happened. And while the Maple Leafs have used him as their third line centre in the past, he appears to be at his best on the wing.

Kerfoot’s Consistency Dates Back to 2021 Playoffs

I know, it seems odd to use the 2021 playoffs as a measuring stick for anybody seeing that it ended with another colossal heartbreak for the Maple Leafs. But Kerfoot was far from the reason for it. In fact, he was arugably their best forward not named William Nylander throughout the first round.

When Tavares suffered that horrific injury in the first 10 minutes of Game 1, Kerfoot was thrust into a much bigger role than he originally anticipated. He ended up taking on second line centre duties, and not only did he find success, but he sort of developed a new role as a pest on the team. He was always in the middle of the scrums along the boards and in front of the net, and he was excellent when it came to drawing penalties and keeping the Canadiens on their toes.

Maple Leafs’ Alex Kerfoot finds Morgan Rielly with a sweet dish to seal the victory.

He finished the playoffs with five points in seven games, which was about all the Maple Leafs could have asked for out of their second line centre. And after a summer in which Kerfoot’s name was tossed around the rumour mill regarding the Expansion Draft, he’s carried his consistency into the 2021-22 season.

Maple Leafs’ Kerfoot Steps Up When Others Go Down

You can say whatever you want about Kerfoot, but the one thing that’s hard to deny is that he knows how to step up his game when the team needs it the most. We saw it in the playoffs after Tavares was injured in the first game, and it remains true so far this season.

Even in games like last Wednesday’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers, Kerfoot tallied an assist in the absence of Tavares. It was one game, yes, but it shows his ability to fill the void when a key player goes down. And while Kerfoot only had one assist in that game against Philadelphia, it was a pretty one. He turned on the jets and circled around the Flyers’ net before finding Kase point-blank for his second goal of the season.

As I mentioned before, all of Kerfoot’s points this year came at even strength. When it comes to special teams, he’s been used almost exclusively on the penalty kill. This is especially impressive when you consider that he used to take reps on the second power play unit. This year, he’s been put into a mostly-defensive role, and he’s been able to find his offense anyway.

If nothing else, Kerfoot has shown that he can fit into multiple roles and be the guy that Keefe calls on if he needs somebody to step up. He’s seen time on the second line with Tavares and Marner. He’s spent time on the third line with Kase and David Kampf. He’s taken reps with Nylander here and there. Players like these are so valuable to good teams and certainly make their head coach’s lives easier.

Kerfoot’s Play Is Keeping Him Out of Trade Rumours

Because of the fact that he makes $3.5 million and hasn’t quite produced the offense that the Maple Leafs had hoped for in the past, Kerfoot’s name was often tossed around in trade rumours. But at this point, it almost seems as though he’s become a valuable piece that the Maple Leafs want to hold on to.

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I doubt that he’s untouchable. If an offer came along that would make the team better, I’m sure general manager Kyle Dubas would pull the trigger. But as of right now, I can’t imagine the Maple Leafs are actively shopping Kerfoot like people may have thought prior to the season. He’s proven to be a great utility player for them this year, and as long as he stays consistent, he’ll be a valuable player for them down the stretch.

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