Have the Toronto Maple Leafs found their 4th line?
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Bennett Jull1 month ago
With five games remaining in the regular season, the Leafs take on the Cup favourite Bruins tonight. There’s no shortage of storylines; this is definitely a game you shouldn’t miss. Ryan O’Reilly makes his long-awaited return to the lineup, and his usage will be interesting. Practice lines from yesterday suggest that he will start alongside Alex Kerfoot and Noel Acciari.
Ilya Samsonov will look to bounce back after coming in for Matt Murray against the Red Wings. While he didn’t have his best stuff, he was likely tired having played the night before, which is understandable. With only five games remaining including a back-to-back, he won’t get many more chances before the playoffs begin.
Morgan Rielly skated alongside Luke Schenn in practice yesterday, which suggests that Timothy Liljegren will get the night off. It appears as though Schenn and Liljegren are jostling to play alongside Rielly, with the other pairs seemingly set. Of course, things can change in an instant, and Sheldon Keefe is a constant tinkerer.
Each aforementioned storyline is exciting, but it’s the 4th line that I’m most eager to watch. For the last two games now, David Kampf has lined up between Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty. In both games, their line had above-average underlying numbers (Corsi and Fenwick). Against Columbus on Tuesday, they were very noticeable. Aston-Reese scored twice and was named the 1st star, Lafferty had two assists and drew a penalty, and Kampf chipped in with a helper while winning just under 60% of his faceoffs. While they won’t be expected to score every night, this trio has the makings of a very solid and sturdy line just in time for the playoff push.
David Kampf has been heavily relied on this year to win draws. When the Leafs enter overtime, Sheldon Keefe taps number 64’s shoulder, and he routinely takes the opening faceoff. His steady defensive play is his calling card, and I won’t soon forget his breakaway goal against Tampa Bay in game one last year. He is an ideal 4th line center.
Zach Aston-Reese continues to make it difficult for Sheldon Keefe to leave him out of the lineup. Over the last 10 games, he has scored more goals than Nylander, Tavares, and Marner. He is a constant physical presence; leading the Leaf’s forwards in hits (neck and neck with Jake McCabe for the team lead this year). His steady defensive game has earned Keefe’s trust, and his recent emergence might have cemented his spot for the playoffs – regardless of an incoming Matthew Knies (more on this down the road).
We still haven’t seen the best of Sam Lafferty. The soon-to-be father gives Toronto a right-handed shot that can forecheck, play with some physicality, and chip in every now and then offensively. Perhaps his greatest asset is his speed, he can flat-out fly. Acclimating to an extremely skilled Toronto lineup was always going to take some time, and I believe we will see Lafferty find another gear come playoff time. He is starting to round into form, and perhaps increased reps with this line will lead to some additional chemistry.
It should also be pointed out that Aston-Reese and Lafferty have some similarities and some history. Both are born in the Northeastern United States; Lafferty is from Hollidaysburg PA, and Aston-Reese is from Staten Island NY. Each of them played in the NCAA; Aston Reese for Northeastern, and Lafferty for Brown. Aston-Reese is only seven months older than Lafferty. Their paths to the NHL took similar steps and both began their professional careers in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
In the 2019-2020 NHL season, Aston-Reese played 57 games for the Penguins. Lafferty suited up for 50. The following season saw Aston-Reese don the black and yellow 45 times, while Lafferty got into 34 games (Covid shortened season). The two have been teammates before, and it shouldn’t be too surprising that they have rekindled some chemistry lately. Add in David Kampf, and Sheldon Keefe may have something here.
Defensively sound, physical, plus a touch of scoring. Could you ask for more from your 4th line? All three players routinely kill penalties and can be relied upon in any circumstance. Having a 4th line that can take a regular shift enables Keefe the option to give his more offensively gifted players additional offensive starts. It allows the other forward lines to be just that much sharper and fresher, and in a series with Tampa Bay, any fractional advantage is welcomed.
The trio of Kampf, Aston-Reese, and Lafferty has all the makings of an elite 4th line, and I’m very excited to watch them stack up against Boston tonight. In a measuring stick game, it will be a true test for everyone wearing blue and white. As always, let’s hope for good health, and Go Leafs Go.
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