Who knew the absence of David Kampf would have had such a detrimental impact on the Maple Leafs?
We kid. No more dad jokes this year, we promise.
Against the backdrop of a Kampf benching, the Leafs closed the 2023 calendar year with a whimper, losing 3-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
Coach Sheldon Keefe’s announcement a few hours before game time that he was benching Kampf, who has struggled this season, for some glaring mistakes 24 hours earlier in Columbus overshadowed, at least for a day, the plight of goaltender Ilya Samsonov.
It wasn’t a distraction, though, from what happened once the puck dropped at Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs didn’t give up a ton against the Hurricanes, but they didn’t create a ton either.
Defenceman Timothy Liljegren, with his first goal of the season, ended Pyotr Kochetkov’s shutout bid at 5:16 of the third period. Liljegren fired the puck over Kochetkov’s right shoulder after a fine feed from Max Domi.
From there, the Leafs played desperation hockey, but couldn’t score again until Nick Robertson did with 9.8 seconds to play. Toronto will get at it again on Tuesday when they begin a three-game visit to California in Los Angeles.
Kampf was leading Leafs forwards in shorthanded ice time, though it might have been just a coincidence that Carolina’s first two goals were scored on the power play. Toronto was 21st in the National Hockey League on the penalty kill going into the game. At best, that’s mediocre. We don’t imagine Kampf, replaced by Pontus Holmberg in the lineup, would have made much of a difference.
Former Leaf Michael Bunting — who was acknowledged on the scoreboard during a TV timeout in the first period, a short tribute barely noticed by the quiet crowd — and Seth Jarvis scored for Carolina on goalie Martin Jones. Sebastian Aho scored into an empty Leafs net in the final minute.
The bigger story is that Keefe benched a player for a game. Sure, it would have made bigger waves had it been a core Leaf who was sent to cool his heels in the press box, but Keefe hasn’t been the type to hold players accountable by benching them. That he did it at all should raise eyebrows.
Keefe issued a stern warning of sorts during his media availability late in the afternoon. It came before his team lost for the fifth time in six games, a tailspin that absolutely can’t be blamed solely on goaltending.
Keefe made it clear he’s sick of the mistakes his group has been making on a nightly basis. Sharp goaltending would have mended some of those self-inflicted wounds, but that doesn’t make sloppy hockey excusable.
“I guess you could call it a message to the group in the sense that there’s going to be less tolerance for that,” Keefe said.
“We’ve got to get better in this area. That’s it. In particular, members of our leadership group, like David is, we trust these guys to lead the way for us and the expectations are higher. Kampf has to be a leader on (the fourth) line. He’s got to be a leader in those types of situations where we’re in control of the game.
“It’s not just him, it’s the guys that we really rely on to be good in those areas, whether you’re the top guys that produce a lot of offence, we need those guys to be to be good in these areas as well. But for someone like Kampfer in particular, that is his primary job and focus when he’s on the ice. When he strays from that, he opens up the opportunity for others to take his minutes.”
Kampf, whose defensive acumen helped lead to a four-year contract extension with the Leafs in June, was singled out after his offensive-zone miscue helped lead to the tying goal by the Blue Jackets’ Adam Fantilli in the third period on Friday. A bad change on the part of Kampf and his linemates before Cameron Gaunce scored the Jackets’ second goal didn’t sit well either.
“It’s not specific to Kampf,” Keefe said. “You try to be patient and you try to trust your guys and give them opportunities to go back out and do right, but the tolerance for the same types of mistakes that are happening when we’re in positions (to win) of late, is going to be a lot less.
“It needs to be a lot less if we don’t see improvement. That’s the reality of it. We’ve got a young guy in Holmberg who has played well for us and hasn’t played for a while.
“There needs to be some accountability. In my opinion, (Kampf) didn’t do a good enough job in some of those moments I’m talking about as a guy that we really rely on in those positions, especially when we’re playing with leads. He’s very important player for us and he will be a lot better for us.”
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