The Hamilton Spectator

Järnkrok gives Maple Leafs bang for the buck


It’s probably safe to say that when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Calle Järnkrok as a free agent last summer, the most interestin­g part wasn’t the player himself. It was the four-year, $8.4-million (U.S.) deal; only Morgan Rielly is signed for longer.

But now here’s this career thirdliner, under contract through 2025-26 and earning top-six minutes, who will be in the mix after the team deals with the future of the team’s star forwards: Auston Matthews and William Nylander (who can become free agents in 2023-24) and Mitch Marner and John Tavares (2024-25).

The Leafs saw something in Järnkrok beyond the usual, and he has been unusually productive lately.

He’s riding a four-game points streak (three goals, three assists) and the two goals on Saturday night — in the Leafs’ 5-4 shootout win over the Senators in Ottawa — were his 16th and 17th of the season, establishi­ng a career high. At 31, he also tied his career best in points (35).

“I don’t really think about things like that,” Järnkrok told reporters in Ottawa after reaching those personal milestones. “I’m here to win hockey games and not to focus on how many goals you score or anything like that.”

It has helped that he’s been playing a top-six role for most of the second half of the season, starting on a line with Tavares after the likes of Denis Malgin, Nick Robertson and Alex Kerfoot failed. Lately, it’s been with Matthews at centre. Järnkrok played with Matthews on Friday night and picked up two assists.

“He’s a great player,” said Matthews. “He’s sneaky good at so many things. So smart, gets into great spots — all over the ice, not just in the offensive zone. A real easy guy to play with. His release, it’s one of the prettiest releases I’ve seen. A lot of fun watching him get the puck off.”

Järnkrok is quiet, low-key and humble. He doesn’t say much, doesn’t seek the limelight. He’s one of the few Leafs who could walk down Yonge Street unnoticed.

The Detroit Red Wings drafted him in the second round in 2010, then traded him to the Nashville Predators for David Legwand at the 2014 deadline. Under Barry Trotz, the low-maintenanc­e Järnkrok learned to play a responsibl­e, mistake-free game — what every coach wants to see.

“He’s done a really good job for us, no matter where we’ve put him,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “He forechecks well. He’s defensivel­y responsibl­e.”

Keefe has been on a line-shuffling binge, partly because of injuries to Ryan O’Reilly (finger) and Noel Acciari (undisclose­d), but also to get the healthy forwards more used to each other with the playoffs less than a month away. Järnkrok’s versatilit­y and reliabilit­y make him even more valuable in that regard.

“He’s been great all season, but it seems like he’s gone to another level,” said Keefe. “Järnkrok has moved around and played with different people throughout the season, and played different positions. He hasn’t spent a lot of time with Auston; that’s something we wanted to get a look at.

“He’s been terrific both in his own play and what he’s generating but also how he’s facilitati­ng for his linemates, Auston in particular.”

After Saturday’s opener of a fivegame road trip, the Leafs returned home for a day off. They’ll practise Monday at the Ford Performanc­e Centre before visiting Pierre Engvall and the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Nine of the Leafs’ remaining 13 games are away.

As for Acciari, the update was positive. Keefe said the forward didn’t suffer a concussion from a hit by Carolina’s Jesse Puljujarvi in Friday night’s game and was able to work out on his own.

The Leafs have more healthy bodies than roster spots and plan to rotate them to keep everyone fresh. Forward Wayne Simmonds played Saturday, his first game since Feb. 1, while veteran defenceman Mark Giordano sat for the first time all season, making room for Justin Holl.

“There’s going to be times where guys are going to get time off, whether it’s bumps and bruises or rest or workload,” said Keefe. “Guys are going to be coming out. While we’re healthy, we want to keep everybody involved.”

 ?? ELSA GETTY IMAGES ?? Calle Järnkrok of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils earlier this month.
ELSA GETTY IMAGES Calle Järnkrok of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils earlier this month.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada