Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs set out to build head coach Sheldon Keefe’s third-line shutdown unit. It was a unit he had talked about the team needing almost since he became the team’s head coach. During the offseason prior to the 2021-22 season, that line became general manager Kyle Dubas’ project.
Building the Maple Leafs’ Successful Third Line
To my mind, that project turned out well. David Kampf turned into a mid-level quality player, perhaps one notch below being a star. But, he’s the kind of reliable and capable player every NHL team needs and desires. He even had a bit more offence than he had shown previously in his tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Before the season, many Maple Leafs’ fans wondered why in the world the team would sign Kampf. He was a retread, who had only scored one goal with the Blackhawks the season before. His team, which was close to the bottom of the NHL barrel, didn’t even value him enough to qualify him.
Maple Leafs’ Fans Were Wrong about Kampf
According to many Maple Leafs’ fans, Kampf was a nobody. But fans were wrong. It turns out that he was a valuable somebody.
When Kampf was paired with Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev to create the team’s third line, it was solid beyond expectations. That third line was thrown out into the defensive zone whenever there was a fire to put out. The line both survived and prospered. It was one of the reasons that last season’s Maple Leafs set franchise records for wins and points.
Since last season, Mikheyev has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks and was replaced by Calle Jarnkrok in the right-wing position. Pierre Engvall has since moved to the third-line center position with Michael Bunting on his left side. Kampf’s now moved down to center the team’s fourth line.
This Season’s Plans for the Fourth Line
In the same way that the team successfully build a shutdown third line last season, it seemed to me that the organization’s offseason projebefore to this season was to build a fourth line. That line would have personality, drive, physicality, and a pound-on-the-other-guy mentality. It would relentlessly beat on the opposition.
To do so, during the offseason, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas signed three players to the team – Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Adam Gaudette, and (later in the offseason) Zach Aston-Reese. There also were a few young players raising from the Toronto Marlies who might also add to the mix. These players were Bobby McMann, Curtis Douglas, and Joey Anderson.
As I saw it, the project was to find in those six players a fourth line with the never-say-die drive and physicality that would make it really tough for the opposition. That fourth line would work to wear down the opposition – to soften them up, so to speak. Then, the team’s top-six units could invoke their offensive will onto other teams.
It didn’t work. [In fact, I believed that unit was a brilliant idea and one that could be done with less-expensive players who would see this as an opportunity to rise to the challenge – sort of like a group of misfits who would create its own group. I admit, I was completely wrong.]
My forensic analysis was that this fourth line didn’t generate enough offence to drive the play into the opponent’s end of the ice. Hence it was always playing in the defensive end of the ice, which gave the opposition too many chances.
Enter Denis Malgin to the Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line
With little fanfare, the Maple Leafs re-signed Denis Malgin, who had been playing at home in Zurich, Switzerland. As I wrote in a post yesterday, Malgin has had a huge impact on the success of the Maple Leafs’ fourth line. And, to my eyes, it happened by accident.
The chain of events that worked to improve the Maple Leafs’ fourth line was that Nick Robertson was brought up to the team after Matt Murray’s groin injury. Because Robertson was seen to have more potential production as a top-six player than a bottom-six player, Malgin was moved to Kampf’s line.
That move was made, more or less, permanent when Nicolas Aube-Kubel was waived and picked up by the Washington Capitals. Wayne Simmonds, who the team put into the lineup for his physicality, played a few games. He eventually moved out of the lineup; and, because he had cleared waivers, he dropped down to the Toronto Marlies.
That left a space open for Malgin to move to the right side of the fourth line, with Kampf at the center and Aston-Reese in the left-wing spot.
Denis Malgin Is an Interesting Player
Malgin has proven to be a really interesting player. He’s small, and speedy on his skates, with good puck control. He’s also a defensibly responsible 200-foot player. Although he was a healthy scratch early in the season, he’s found a place on Kampf’s line – which is now the team’s fourth line.
Kampf is continuing to show that he’s both consistent, reliable, and can score. Aston-Reese has shown himself to be a physical player with similar shutdown qualities. Those two players have started to build chemistry. Malgin adds the offensive upside to that line that they need, without sacrificing defence.
Recently coach Keefe noted to the media that Malgin’s inclusion into that line “has brought another layer or level of skill that has kept them on offence even more and kept the puck away from (the other team’s) good players.”
However, Keefe also added that “Right now, we are happy with Malgin there. The reality is that if Malgin keeps playing the way that he has, he is probably going to elevate in the lineup, but at the same time, I am hesitant to do it because it is working so well in that role.”
The Fourth Line Right Now
Right now, the fourth line is performing well. Part of that is Kampf’s ability. Part also is Malgin. But, Aston-Reese is also looking good as well.
This is the kind of bottom-six unit that can help the team both in the regular season and in the postseason as well.