The 2016-17 season was a big one for the Toronto Maple Leafs in terms of a shift in the direction of the franchise. After getting the green light to undergo a proper rebuild following the 2014-15 season, they drafted Mitch Marner with the fourth-overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft and went on to finish dead last in 2015-16. That was where they won the draft lottery and drafted Auston Matthews, their first franchise centre since Mats Sundin.
All of a sudden, the team’s core pieces were in place and ready to play in the NHL, but they still needed a reliable starting goalie, so they looked across the continent and acquired Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks. While the Maple Leafs weren’t ever able to amount to any playoff success with Andersen in the crease, he did give them something they lacked ever since the days of Curtis Joseph and Felix Potvin — a goalie they could rely on.
Six years after making that trade, the Maple Leafs could once again be looking to the Ducks for an option in net. Sportsnet’s Nick Alberga reported that goaltender John Gibson is open to being moved and has informed the Ducks of this. This time around, though, the Maple Leafs’ circumstances are slightly different. They have negotiations with their own goaltender in Jack Campbell to worry about, so it’s not like they don’t already have options in net. But if those negotiations go south and the Maple Leafs need to fill his spot, they should definitely be checking in on Gibson.
Gibson’s Career With the Ducks
The Ducks drafted Gibson with the 39th pick in 2011, and in case your memory is short, there’s already a connection with Toronto. Then-Maple Leafs general manager (GM) Brian Burke traded the 39th pick in that draft along with the 30th-overall pick, who would end up being Rickard Rakell, to the Ducks in exchange for the 22nd-overall pick, which the Maple Leafs used to draft Tyler Biggs. As we all know, Biggs never played an NHL game, and this trade was widely regarded as one of Burke’s worst during his time as GM.
Gibson’s tenure as a regular NHL goalie began in 2015-16, and this was also the start of the best stretch of his career. Sharing the crease with the aforementioned Andersen, Gibson managed a record of 21-13-4 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.07 and a save percentage (SV%) of .920. The two goalies took home the William M. Jennings Trophy as the league’s best goalie tandem, and with Gibson being 22 years old, the Ducks looked at him as their goalie of the future, which led to Andersen’s departure for Toronto.
In 2016-17, Gibson backstopped the Ducks to a playoff berth as the Pacific Division champions, and he started each game of the playoffs before a lower-body injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final removed him from the series. He finished his playoff run with a GAA of 2.59 and a SV% of .918. He finished the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons with a .926 and .917 SV%, respectively, but as the Ducks’ core pieces got older and the team got worse, naturally, so did Gibson.
With the Ducks having missed the playoffs four seasons in a row now, Gibson’s numbers have taken a dip. This past season, he finished with a record of 18-26-11 to go along with a SV% of .903 and a GAA of 3.19. The GAA was his worst of his career so far, and despite the Ducks adding some vibrant young pieces, including the likes of Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, Gibson is in what should be the prime of his career now, so it makes sense that he would be open to a trade.
Acquiring Gibson Would Come With Risk
Before fans all jump aboard the idea of the Maple Leafs acquiring Gibson, it’s important to note that there would certainly be an element of risk involved in making a trade like this. Gibson’s a very good goalie, but he’s not a miracle worker. His SV% has hovered just above the .900 mark for the past three seasons, and his GAA in the high 2.00s and low 3.00s. Although he was one of if not the best goaltender in the league for that stretch between 2016-19, that was also four years ago.
Much of Gibson’s poor play can be attributed to the Ducks entering their rebuild stage, but fans have to take into consideration his play by itself. His quality start percentage (QS%) was even at .500 this season, which is slightly below the league average of .530. He also has a Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) of minus-4.44. For context, Petr Mrazek’s GSAx in 2021-22 was minus-12.84. It can be a bit of a confusing stat to understand at first, but it essentially calculates the percentage of shots goalies save relative to the quality of chances the opponent gets. You can learn more about this stat here.
It’s also worth noting that Gibson’s stats were much better in the first half of the season. He did a nosedive towards the end of the 2021-22 season, as did the Ducks as a team. The thing that keeps me intrigued about acquiring him is the fact that his numbers dropped right around the time the Ducks began to plummet as a team. Giving him a roster with a much better defensive corps like the Maple Leafs would be intriguing and it has to be assumed that his performance would improve. But at the same time, his cap hit for the next five seasons is $6.4 million per season. If his past three seasons are a reflection of who he really is, that’s a contract that could close the Maple Leafs’ window.
Gibson Could Help Maple Leafs Contend With Eastern Conference Goaltending
Despite the amount of risk that applies to acquiring a player like Gibson, there’s one factor that keeps me intrigued, and that’s the fact that we know what Gibson is capable of, which is stealing games. That’s something we’ve seen all throughout the 2022 Playoffs with the performances from Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Heck, we even saw it in 2021. There was nothing special about Carey Price’s .901 SV% or his minus-7.93 GSAx during the regular season last year, and yet, he ended up backstopping a Montreal Canadiens team that finished below .500 to a Stanley Cup Final.
The reality is, the Maple Leafs are going to have to deal with the likes of Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin as long as they’re in the Eastern Conference. If they’re not going to have Campbell between the pipes, I would much prefer to have Gibson versus some low-cost career backup who’s looking for a shot to become a full-time starter. All of the recent Stanley Cup winners had a goaltender who was a rock for them from start to finish. Gibson could very well be that goalie for the Maple Leafs if a fresh start proves in his favour, and while it would certainly be a massive “if,” it’s an if that could potentially reap massive rewards for the Maple Leafs.
NHL Insider Chris Johnston did a spot on TSN 1050’s Leafs Lunch to gauge the situation, and stated that he believes the Maple Leafs are more likely to go after a reclamation project-type of goaltender that they can get for cheap. This is obviously just a rumour, but I can’t imagine the Maple Leafs would do that without at least checking in on bigger names like Gibson. There’s obviously risk in trading for his contract, but there’s also risk in putting all of your faith into a goaltender that’s unproven or somebody that’s flown below the radar, especially seeing the damage that goaltenders like Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin have done in the playoffs.
Maple Leafs’ Goaltending Situation Will Depend on Campbell Negotiations
Regardless of what fans think of Gibson and the idea of acquiring him, the action the Maple Leafs take here will depend on whether or not they can re-sign Campbell. I can’t imagine Toronto pursuing a trade if they’ve already got Campbell in the crease. But if he leaves, and the Maple Leafs are left with Mrazek as their best option heading into next season, they should target the goalie who’s proven himself in this league, despite what the risk in acquiring him might be.
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Even if Gibson is made available for trade and the Maple Leafs aren’t on his no-trade list, the price will become a big sticking point. A trade package would certainly have to include somebody like Alex Kerfoot, likely a first-round pick, and a prospect, too. Obviously, they shouldn’t shell out all of their most valuable assets and sell their entire future to get him. But if getting him back on a good team re-ignites the Gibson from 2016-19, it’s absolutely something worth taking a look at.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 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 Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. 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.