The period of time between October 2018 and February 2020 made the Toronto Maple Leafs recognize the importance of one particular aspect to a team: a good backup goalie.
Ever since the Leafs acquired Frederik Andersen prior to the 2016-17 NHL season, he’s been their starting goalie year-in and year-out. No controversy there. But after a revolving door of backup goalies that just didn’t work out, including Jhonas Enroth, Garret Sparks, and Michael Hutchinson (in 2019-20), the Leafs finally found their backup on Feb 5, 2020. Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas would trade Trevor Moore and two draft picks to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Kyle Clifford.
The Leafs Find Their Guy
From the moment Campbell arrived in Toronto, he had won over the hearts of his teammates and fans everywhere. Not only did they finally have a legitimate backup goalie, but he also seemed to have the kindest personality and this infectious positive energy around him.
To help Campbell’s case further, he impressed in his first sample size with the Leafs. In six games prior to COVID-19 postponing the season, he posted a record of 3-2-1 with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.63 and a save percentage (SV%) of .915. Considering the lack of trust the Leafs were able to have in their backups for the past year and a half, these stats were enough for fans to breathe, at the very least.
In three games this season, albeit a small sample size, Campbell’s looked even better than last year. With a record of 3-0-0, a GAA of 1.33, and a SV% of .951 coming off of his first shutout of the season, there really isn’t much more you could ask of him. Especially in a season where Andersen’s had his struggles, Campbell’s been very impressive to start the year.
Meanwhile, Andersen’s future in Toronto is foggy at best. His contract is up at the end of the year, and he’s kind of in that grey area where he’s been good enough for the Leafs to consider bringing him back, but likely not at the cost he would ask for.
Campbell, meanwhile, is under contract through next season. He won’t be an unrestricted free agent until after the 2021-22 season, and he comes at a cheap price of $1.65 million.
Then, you have to consider the upcoming expansion draft. The Leafs will only be allowed to protect one goalie, and I can’t imagine they would protect Andersen unless there was a mutual understanding that he would re-sign at a team-friendly price. And with Campbell’s impressive stats as a backup goalie in both Toronto and Los Angeles, you’d have to imagine he would be an attractive name for Seattle.
I don’t ever like ripping on Andersen, simply because I’ve lost track of how many times the team in front of him has failed to show up, and he’s been the guy to bail them out. Even though he has his flaws, he’s been a breath of fresh air for a team that’s had to deal with a plethora of underperforming goalies dating back to the Ed Belfour days.
But he’s on an extremely team-friendly deal at $5 million per year, and considering what his workload has been since the Maple Leafs acquired him, it’s easy to imagine he’ll ask for upwards of $7 million a year. And while he’s been great in the blue and white, I don’t think he’s been good enough to justify paying him that kind of money. Especially for a team as cap-crunched as Toronto.
Campbell, on the other hand, I believe has serious potential to be an effective starting goalie full time. He was an 11th overall pick of the Dallas Stars in 2010, but between injuries and a slow start to his development, he was never really able to figure it out in Dallas.
But still, you don’t go 11th overall for no reason. We aren’t talking about some flash-in-the-pan backup goaltender who had one good stretch and now apparently deserves to take on the workload of a starting goalie. The tools are there, no doubt. And when the Stars drafted him in 2010, I’m sure they foresaw him becoming their future starting goalie. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that.
Fast forward to Campbell’s time in Los Angeles, and he seemingly turned his game around for the better. He spent two seasons with the AHL’s Ontario Reign and posted a combined record of 42-25-11, keeping his SV% above .910 and his GAA below 2.85.
His first full season as an NHL backup goalie came in 2018-19, where he played in 31 games and finished with a record of 10-14-1 with a SV% of .928 and a GAA of 2.30. He slightly regressed in 2019-20 but picked it up after the trade to Toronto.
The point of all of this is that while Campbell likely isn’t where scouts projected him to be after he went 11th overall, he still has the tools to be an effective starting goalie in the NHL. And after his rocky start in Dallas, along with being stuck behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, he hasn’t really had a good chance to start full time.
But even watching Campbell in his start against the Oilers, he looked calm, comfortable, and collected. His rebound control was very good, and he seemed to be dialled in right from the get-go.
The risk that comes with riding Campbell out as your full-time starting goalie next season is simply the lack of experience that comes with it. He’s never played more than 31 games in a season, and when you combine that with his injury history, will he be able to handle the workload of a starter in the NHL? We don’t know.
But Campbell has shown flashes of brilliance between the pipes, and it’s one of those risks where the potential reward could be worth it. Especially when you’re anticipating a situation where Andersen isn’t a Leaf come next season, having Campbell play the way he has as a backup over the course of 50-60 games while making less than $2 million could potentially be huge for the team.
At this point, I think the goaltending situation is a “cross that bridge when we get there” dilemma for Leafs brass. They have two good goalies in Andersen and Campbell to ride out for the rest of the season, so they should remain focused on the present.
In a perfect world, I would have Andersen back on the same contract he signed for, and I would ride the two of them out as a tandem. We’ve seen teams adopt the tandem method more often than not recently, rather than going with the traditional starter/backup rotation. But if they find themselves in a situation where Andersen is on his way out at the end of the season, I believe Campbell has earned a chance to be the full-time starter. And I think it’s a role he would exceed in.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.