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Playoff Kerfoot filling big gaps in the lineup

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With John Tavares out and Nick Foligno day-to-day, Kerfoot had to step up.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Two Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

If someone had told you before this series began that Alexander Kerfoot would both be playing second line centre and tied for the team lead in points after four games while Auston Matthews was held pointless in three of those games, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that the Toronto Maple Leafs would also be leading the series 3-1.

Not only has Kerfoot pulled his weight, he’s played his best hockey as a Leaf, contributing heavily to the team’s success. Kerfoot hasn’t garnered much love from Leaf fans ever since his arrival as part of the Nazem Kadri trade and, frankly, it makes perfect sense. Kadri was a fan favourite and the closest thing fans had to a homegrown star for a long time. He was here for a long time and it was a roller coaster from the beginning, but that just made fans more attached when he became what everyone always knew he could. Kerfoot has always been seen as “not Kadri” as a result. While it makes sense, I think nostalgia plays a huge role in this as Kadri looks like he’s declined significantly and Kerfoot is arguably better now, although clearly neither had strong on-ice impacts in 2021.

The narrative has turned drastically and basically overnight as Kadri is once again suspended in the playoffs (this time for eight games) while Kerfoot is thriving, playing in a role that isn’t exactly setting him up for success.

I re-watched all of Kerfoot’s shifts from the back to back games in Montreal and ended up with 15 minutes of video clips. The idea behind this piece is to lay out my observations and lay out how exactly he’s managed to play so far above expectations.

Even-strength offence

With Kerfoot on the ice at 5v5, the Leafs have owned 55% of the expected goal share while outscoring the Canadiens 3-1 in 45 minutes of play. While the expected goals dipped to 48% in his two games as the second line centre, the goals were 3-0. Kerfoot had assists on two of those goals, one in each of games three and four. His primary assist in game three came off of a won offensive zone faceoff back to William Nylander, who can’t miss right now.

Game four was a huge night for Kerfoot as he notched three assists and was on the ice for all four Leafs goals in a 4-0 win. The Leafs scored two of those goals at 5v5 and Kerfoot had one of the more deserving secondary assists you’ll see on Nylander’s fourth goal in four games. Galchenyuk steals the show here with that ridiculous pass, obviously, but Kerfoot makes it all happen. Kerfoot collected the puck in stride in the neutral zone after Muzzin chipped the puck out and realizes his speed has backed up the defence. Kerfoot slices across the middle lane as he enters the zone and pulls the RHD up high while Galchenyuk drives the middle lane. Kerfoot makes a slick little slip pass to Galchenyuk in alone and he does the rest after Nylander beats Suzuki to the net. An all around great goal by three players who have stepped up when their team desperately needed it.

The other 5v5 goal that game was Jason Spezza’s goal from Alex Galchenyuk’s incredible saucer pass over Joel Edmundson's leg. Kerfoot had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he was there and he did backcheck very hard on the preceding Canadiens’ rush. It’s all about the process!

Kerfoot isn’t an offensive driver at 5v5, but when he does create offence it’s most often off the rush. The fact that Kerfoot was above league average amongst forwards in rush shots is actually really impressive when you consider he shot the puck at a rate just lower than Morgan Rielly and just higher than Zach Bogosian this season.

Kerfoot has shot the puck at basically the exact same rate during the playoffs and that’s probably a good thing, especially with the way Nylander is converting right now. Kerfoot’s value offensively comes mostly in transition and facilitating. This saucer pass to Galchenyuk on a late two on one in game three would have sealed it, but the puck lands just early and it bounces on Galchenyuk.

Kerfoot is good at creating lanes on entries and taking the space being afforded to him rather than trying to force plays and turning pucks over. Since Kerfoot isn’t a shooter, he likes when the defence gives him the line and he’s able to cross the middle lane. From there the defence is forced to collapse and lanes open up for him.

Kerfoot has been dumping it in a fair amount in the series though for a few reasons. One reason is that the Canadiens’ defenders are aggressive in the neutral zone and don’t often give up much space. Another is that the team has been playing with the lead a lot and are clearly going into a more conservative shell for long stretches. The last one is simply that Nylander and Galchenyuk have been much better than their regular season selves on the forecheck. If you’re making a split second decision and you know those two are in full stride heading into the offensive zone right now, you’re pretty confident they’re going to at the very least make it extremely difficult for the opposition to retrieve the puck and breakout.

Even-strength Defence

The only goal the Canadiens have scored in the series with Kerfoot on the ice a was the Josh Anderson goal in game one which happened two minutes of game play after the Tavares injury and also had nothing to do with Kerfoot. Thornton turned the puck over on the entry as his defencemen were changing and Anderson was able to blow through Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Sandin who had just stepped onto the ice.

Kerfoot’s speed and hockey sense help him a lot defensively, which have both been on display nearly every shift in this series. He’s not big, but he’s feisty and has been a hound on the puck while being smart enough to know when to attack the puck and when to back off and contain. His defensive zone reads have stood out to me and he’s been noticeably active in getting his team the puck back.

Kerfoot has been making so many little plays that make it difficult for the opposition to create anything offensively. He’s been helpful in shutting down the cycle by anticipating the play and quickly jumping into the lane.

Kerfoot isn’t afraid to run into someone either if he doesn’t get there first. He’s obviously not going to run anybody over, but you don’t have to crush a guy to be effective. In the clip below, he’s able to hold up Jesperi Kotkaniemi just long enough for Justin Holl to get in and break up the pass, leading to the Leafs heading the other way with the puck.

Kerfoot’s defensive positioning combined with the aforementioned quickness and anticipation shows itself in his puck support as well. The Leafs have played tight defence all series, giving up just three 5v5 goals in four games while suppressing chances at the same rate that the Bruins did in the regular season. This is partially due to the Canadiens, who created offensive chances at a bottom ten rate over the last 25 games of their season, but it still takes full buy-in from the players. This is the best defensive team the Leafs have had in a long time and Kerfoot has clearly bought into being a big part of that. He’s been flying on the backcheck and he’s often been in the right position to scoop up the puck when a teammate disrupts a play defensively or needs an option to start the breakout.

Sheldon Keefe has clearly put a lot of trust in Kerfoot as he’s been deployed a lot defending the lead late in games.

Penalty kill

Keefe has also deployed Kerfoot on the penalty kill as much as any forward not named Mitch Marner, who he’s been paired with. Kerfoot and Marner have been a real problem for a Canadiens powerplay that isn’t very good on the best days.

The two have been deployed as the first unit, starting most penalty kills with a defensive zone draw. It’s much easier to play as the second unit often getting on the ice when the powerplay unit is trying to get the puck back through the neutral zone. When you lose a defensive zone draw on the penalty kill, the powerplay gets to immediately set up and it cuts out a big part of the job for them.

Spezza took a lot of those faceoffs in the regular season and was tenth in the league in total shorthanded faceoff differential going 71 for 133 (53.4%), but Kerfoot has taken 16 of the 30 in the series going 7 for 16 (44%). Spezza has taken three and won two of them, but Keefe is likely trying to keep Spezza fresh considering his age and the back to back situation. While Kerfoot is no faceoff specialist, 44% on the penalty kill isn’t all that bad. When you have one less winger supporting off the draw you have to try to win it clean rather than tying up the opposing centre’s stick and relying on your wingers’ help. When it works out, it looks like this.

Defending is a lot easier when you’re a long way from your net, penalty kill or not. Not using Spezza there hasn’t hurt them at all though, as the Leafs have kept the Canadiens off the scoreboard in 26 minutes of penalty killing time in the series. Kerfoot has been on the ice for over 11 of those minutes and he’s been incredibly effective. Kerfoot and Marner are both tireless workers while also being two of the most intelligent players on the team. Kerfoot fits in perfect with Marner’s aggressive style and they’ve given the Canadiens powerplay absolutely no time or space. The speed and aggressiveness makes the penalty kill a threat to score at any moment and they nearly scored a shorthanded goal in game four as a result of it.

It also seems tailor-made for a powerplay unit like the Canadiens’ who don’t have many high-end talents able to consistently expose them and also rely on their point men. When the puck is up high being moved around by mostly stationary players, one mistake could mean an instant breakaway against. Marner and Kerfoot haven’t made them pay yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that change in a hurry. For what it’s worth, Kerfoot did have one shorthanded goal this year against the Winnipeg Jets and it came on a breakaway.

The PK’s aggressiveness has led to a lot of turnovers and forced bad shots resulting in clears for the unit in the series. Often on the PK it’s just about being relentless on the puck and they’ve definitely been that.

I’ve noticed Kerfoot is pretty good at angling players away from the centre lane both in zone and when defending the defensive line. He’s able to get guys skating themselves out of dangerous areas and then he tries to pounce on the puck. Kerfoot has been tremendous on the penalty kill and he and Marner have even managed to make it fun to watch.

While Kerfoot doesn’t often see much powerplay time, he’s been rewarded with some time on the second unit with Tavares out. Kerfoot was able to pick up a secondary assist in that time on the Thornton goal from Spezza in game four. Kerfoot actually started this play by breaking up a play down low defensively and starting the exit, so even on the powerplay he’s backchecking.

He also nearly scored a goal from right in front of the net and kept a play or two alive, but not all that much to cover on the powerplay front. He’s clearly a temporary replacement and hasn’t been nearly as involved in that department.

Ultimately, the Leafs are outscoring the Canadiens 6-1 for the series with Kerfoot on the ice at all situations (4-1 with a goalie in the net). Not many people would have envisioned things going this well with Kerfoot thrust into such a huge role, but here we are. Playoff Kerfoot is here and he is absolutely thriving.

*stats via evolving-hockey.com, heat maps via hockeyviz.com