Regardless of how the team is performing, there are always concerns in Maple Leafs’ land. At the start of the season, the team wasn’t scoring enough. In December, they weren’t playing enough. Now they’re playing lots and scoring lots, but they’re giving up way too many goals.
There always seems to be something to be unhappy enough if you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan. Obviously, these issues aren’t lost on the coaching staff either. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has his own list of concerns.
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In his post-game media question-and-answer sessions, Keefe keeps talking about how the Maple Leafs need to be better defensively. He’s lamented the odd-man rushes and the forward’s failure to play a responsible defensive game. Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas recently acquired Ilya Lyubushkin, a player whose 181-game NHL career has provided next to no offense (1 goal and 19 points in total) specifically because of his defensive play. There are rumors the Maple Leafs are looking for more defensive help.
We Believe the Team’s Biggest Need Is in Goal
As the Maple Leafs hit the 50-game mark, in our opinion the Maple Leafs’ biggest concern has to be goaltending. Since becoming a Maple Leafs’ player in February 2020, Jack Campbell has been nothing short of amazing. Last season Campbell set a new NHL record by starting the season 11-0.
Really, when you think of it, that’s hard to fathom. For all the years the NHL has existed and all the goalies who’ve ever played, no goalie in the entire history of the NHL had ever started a season with 11 straight wins. Not one! Campbell finished last season with an amazing 17-2-2 record in 22 games, a save percentage of .921, and a goals-against-average of 2.15. Those numbers rank second to the enigmatic Ed Belfour’s 2.13 amongst Maple Leafs’ goalies over the past 50 years.
In short, Campbell has thus far been a great goalie for the Maple Leafs.
Campbell Started This Season with the Same Success, But …
This season, while he didn’t start with 11 wins in a row, at the end of November in 18 games played, Campbell was sporting a .946 save percentage and a 1.64 goals-against average. However, in December cracks started to show in Campbell’s game. As a result of Maple Leafs’ players, Campbell included, being infected with COVID-19, games were canceled.
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The Maple Leafs only played seven games the entire month of December. Campbell played five of those games. While his won-loss record in those games was a decent 3-1-1, his save percentage dropped to .909, and his goals-against average jumped to 2.97.
In January, things got even worse for Campbell. In 14 games, his save percentage is .892 and his goals-against average is 3.31.
Being Scored Against Is Not Always the Goalie’s Fault
Obviously, hockey is a team sport. How a goaltender performs depends upon how his team plays defensively in from of him. Most of the time, when a team gives up a lot of goals it’s not solely the goalie’s fault. It’s a failure of the whole team. Having said that, year in and year out NHL Stanley Cup contenders get exceptional goaltending.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are considered a powerhouse in the NHL and have won two consecutive Stanley Cups. During that time, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been considered one of, if not the, best goaltender in the league.
Returning to Campbell, the Maple Leafs’ defensive struggles are a big part of the blame for Campbell’s goals-against problem. The question remains, however, is Campbell good enough to carry the Maple Leafs into a deep playoff run?
Despite how well Campbell played for the Maple Leafs last season, he only played 22 games. After being drafted in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, it took Campbell 10 years to emerge last season as a bonafide starter. Campbell has been good, but he doesn’t have the history to indicate he can carry the load as a solid NHL starter. Although we believe he can, he has yet to prove we’re right.
Is Campbell a Late Bloomer? Can He Keep Getting Better?
NHL history is littered with goalies who have come into the league and had great seasons, only to fall into obscurity. Then there are goalies who come into the league, have great seasons, and kept having great seasons. There have also been goalies who have been late bloomers and haven’t become solid NHL goalies until they were close to, or into, their thirties. Campbell could very well be one of those.
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Kyle Dubas obviously had questions about Campbell’s chances at long-term success and his ability to play well for a large number of games. He spent (over-spent?) $3.8 million on backup-goalie Petr Mrazek. The plan was to create a 1A and 1B tandem of goalies who would, more or less, share the net. That would both cut Campbell’s workload and give the organization a chance to see if he were, in fact, the real deal.
Obviously, Dubas was counting on Mrazek’s ability to carry the load if Campbell faltered. For whatever reason, injuries or not, so far Mrazek hasn’t stepped up. During January and February, Mrazek has a save percentage of .894 and a goals-against-average of 2.79.
Until his last start, Mrazek appeared to be finding his game. Then he let in three goals against the St. Louis Blues that competent NHL goalies should stop. It’s becoming obvious that, at best, Mrazek’s capable of filling a backup role and allowing Campbell a few nights off. So far, that is the best Maple Leafs’ fans have seen.
Maple Leafs’ Fans Have a Love Affair with Campbell
Campbell has captured the hearts of Leafs’ Nation. He seems to be one of the genuinely nicest people we’ve ever seen lace up the skates. All Maple Leafs’ fans want him to succeed. You can’t help but cheer for him.
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Hopefully, Campbell can come out of his present funk. Hopefully, the players in front of him will play better defensively and help him regain his form. If this team wants to have any chance of exorcising their past demons and realizing their dreams of a long playoff run, they need Campbell to be at their Vasilevskiy.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
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