Maple Leafs’ Campbell Climbing Into Vezina Conversation

Although it’s still too early in the 2021-22 campaign to be crowning potential award winners, some of the league’s best have already begun to make their case. Given what Jack Campbell has been able to accomplish since taking sole ownership of the starter’s role with the Toronto Maple Leafs, including him in such discussions is a must.

Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Believe it or not, it’s been over 55 years since a Maple Leaf had their name etched into the Vezina Trophy. Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk actually shared the honour in 1965.

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As the franchise works to regain a status not seen since the Original Six, success in net is as crucial a component as it’s ever been. If Campbell can maintain the pace he’s set early on in 2021-22, he’ll help the Maple Leafs achieve in ways they haven’t since the 1960s. In doing so, he’d then have to be considered a favourite at the 2022 NHL Awards.

Toronto’s Strategic Tandem Plan for 2021-22

Frederik Andersen’s departure this past offseason could have meant that the No. 1 role was Cambell’s to take. However, that’s not quite what Toronto’s pre-season plans suggested after Kyle Dubas acquired another starter-quality goalie in Petr Mrázek.

With both Campbell and Mrázek trending in the right direction individually, it seemed more than likely that this would be a 1A/1B type of scenario heading into 2021-22. That felt like the right approach for a club looking to enhance its goaltending stability.

Unfortunately, with Mrázek’s injury troubles following him into Toronto, that plan wouldn’t make it past the paper it was originally written on.

Fortunately, though, Campbell has proven more than poised to pick up where he left off after an impressive 2020-21 campaign. So much so that he’s now among the league leaders in games played and there doesn’t appear to be any reason to suggest that he can’t maintain the workload.

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What could have been one of the strongest tandems in the league, potentially battling for the Jennings Trophy, has now turned into an individual focus fixated on Campbell alone. All the while, skeptics who were quick to dismiss Campbell’s stat line from last season are now forced to recognize their faulty logic.

Sample Size Matters Among NHL’s Best

There’s no denying the fact that Campbell is not currently leading the league in any major goaltending category at the moment. How, then, can it be justified that he deserves to be discussed among the league’s elite? Simply stated, sample size matters.

The most polarizing performances to this point in 2021-22, influencing a team’s overall results in either regard, haven’t proven sustainable. There is too much of the season left to suggest that those who lead the way after a handful of games will remain atop those lists by year’s end.

For example, if you only look to the goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%) leaderboard, you’ll see Ville Husso and Zachary Fucale tied atop both categories, each with a 0.00 GAA and 1.00 SV%. And modernizing the discussion to include goals saved above expected per 60 (GSAx/60), Stuart Skinner’s 2.777 GSAx/60 is currently best in the league.

Yet, all three only have one game to their name in 2021-22. These feats are quite as impressive, with the bigger picture having been revealed.

Let’s look at how the conversation shifts when games played are incorporated, raising the standard beyond the aforementioned handful that the majority have started to this point. The reality is, the Vezina debate will only include goalies in a starter’s role and totals will factor in as a result.

Among netminders who have been in at least 11 contests thus far, thereby aligning him with a group whose workload separates them from the pack, Campbell sits second in GAA (1.90), first in SV% (.936), and first in GSAx/60 (0.769).

It’s one thing to enjoy a hot streak and such elevation certainly deserves its spotlight. But, it’s a whole other level of impact when league-leading performances are sustained. Campbell is proving capable of accomplishing in both regards.

Campbell Remains Ready to Compete

It’s not to say that every one of Campbell’s performances thus far has been all-star worthy. Riding a four-game winning streak early in November, he had an opportunity to make it five straight against the Los Angeles Kings in his first meeting facing his former club. Things didn’t go to plan, though, as Toronto lost 5-1 and Campbell’s .857 SV% and -1.64 GSAx didn’t help.

Clearly, Campbell isn’t content with anything less than perfection. He readily displays a type of passion for the game that the Maple Leafs haven’t seen from their goaltending in years.

Appropriate to note, though, that even the league’s best are prone to bad outings every so often. For instance, in 2020-21, Marc-André Fleury allowed four or more goals against on seven occasions through only a 36-game sample size. That accounted for nearly 20 percent of his starts, yet he still found a way to end the season with a 1.98 GAA, .928 SV%, and 17.9 GSAx, which were good enough to land him last year’s Vezina and Jennings.

In that same regard, rather than shining a light on the games that haven’t gone Campbell’s way, a more relevant reflection comes from recognizing his ability to rebound from such performances. As was on full display in his start two nights after that loss to the Kings, when he stopped all 36 shots that the Philadelphia Flyers threw at him en route to adding a 3-0 shutout win to his 2021-22 record.

The important takeaway is that Campbell continues to illustrate a trend of success that supersedes any one-off failures, as opposed to seeing him play through the opposite pattern. He is earning his keep among the league’s elite.

A Maple Leaf That’s Acing the Eye Test

Although stats like GSAx/60 bring about a whole new set of metrics to analyze and compare, the eye test will always have its rightful place as a relied-upon method of judging who’s doing it best. After all, regardless of the analytics, nothing trumps witnessing a goalie step up and take over a game when it truly matters most.

Not only are Campbell’s numbers worthy of positive attention, but so is his ability to control the crease at the most pivotal of times. Case in point, his third period heroics against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto’s first meeting of the season with the reigning Stanley Cup champions.

It was 1-0 for Tampa Bay, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, when Brayden Point broke out of his own zone and ended up on a breakaway with the hopes of adding an insurance marker. Not only did Campbell pass that test, but he aced the bonus question presented to him in the form of Mathieu Joseph’s futile rebound attempt.

Keeping it limited to a one-goal lead shifted the momentum in Toronto’s favour. The Maple Leafs ended up tying it late in the frame to force overtime. Ultimately, they ended up coming out on top with a 2-1 victory. From what was likely to be another loss added to their record, a couple of timely saves turned it into two additional points for Toronto.

And that’s just one example of Campbell’s ability to be a game-breaker for his team. He doesn’t just show up to do his job, he stays ready to perform at the highest level possible with every opportunity presented to him.

Can Campbell Continue His Pattern of Success?

Campbell’s ability to manage the unexpected workload placed upon him in 2020-21, with Andersen sidelined due to injury as much as he was, earned him a level of respect he hadn’t experienced to this point in his career.

Yet, with that spotlight came skepticism. Many were left wondering whether a larger sample size of games in a starter’s role would work to dull his recently sparkled stat line.

Campbell’s outstanding start to 2021-22 has not only answered any such questions regarding whether or not he’d be able to maintain that momentum, but his elevation in play also outlines that he’s capable of even higher levels of dominance. Add in his 7-3-1 record and two shutouts through his first 12 games played and there’s no reason to doubt that Campbell can do more of the same all season long.

Considering that Mrázek continues to face injury trouble, that only adds to Campbell’s case as Toronto’s undisputed No. 1. Even upon Mrázek’s return, Campbell’s play in his absence can’t simply be ignored. Rather, it deserves to be rewarded.

Campell has done everything he can to prove that he’s ready to not only lead his team, but also be recognized as one of the NHL’s best. As his counterparts shuffle for position among each other, moving up and down any respective goalie ranking for the year, expect Campbell to push forward in the most consistent of ways.

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Although he’s not sitting alone at the top of any stat category just yet, the progress he continues to display will secure a set of collective results that will make Campbell’s an impossible name to ignore come award season. At this rate, he’s destined to be among the Vezina finalists by the conclusion of the 2021-22 campaign.

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