The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weakest link is goaltending. The NESN broadcast team made that statement during Toronto’s visit to Boston last week. Petr Mrazek was injured early in the game against the Bruins, and rookie Erik Kallgren had to take over, Toronto still won 6-4. Jack Campbell returned to the lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers a few nights later. The Flyers broadcasters reminded viewers that Campbell was an NHL All-Star during the game, stating many may not remember that given his performance over the last couple of months. The Leafs won 6-3. Despite Toronto’s ruthless scoring punch, all hopes of a successful run rest squarely on Campbell with the playoffs in sight. Does that make anyone else nervous?
The old saying, “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link,” has been around since 1786 when Thomas Reid wrote Essays of the Intellectual Powers of Man. It’s now a popular cliché in the business and sports world, but that’s for a reason — it’s true. The Maple Leafs will be a shining example of that over the next couple of weeks, perhaps months, depending on how strong the weakest link proves to be down the stretch.
Maple Leafs Hung Out Campbell
In one of the uglier wins of the season, Toronto surprisingly fell apart in front of Campbell in Philadelphia. It was surprising because the Maple Leafs usually play much more structured, defensive-minded hockey when they have a new guy in the net or someone returning. Unfortunately, that was not the case against the Flyers. Instead, it seemed like the Leafs wanted to test Campbell themselves and let Philly have a free go at netminder.
Sheldon Keefe did not mince words after the game, “That first period, especially in the first 10 minutes, were a disaster by us in front of him.” However, Campbell was up to the test and kept Toronto in the game. “The saves he made early in the game — that is Jack at his best. It was really good to see. It is great to have him back,” said Keefe, who gave a lot of credit to Philadelphia’s strong play.
The NHL’s leading scorer also liked what he saw in the net, “I thought he looked great. He looked really comfortable in there, looked really confident. He looked like Soup,” Auston Matthews, the strongest link in the Maple Leafs’ chain, believes Campbell has returned to his early-season form. “Everyone knows how hard he works and how much he cares and wants to compete for us every night. So I thought he looked really good, and that’s just a really positive thing moving forward for us as a team and him individually.”
Maple Leafs Don’t Have Options
Toronto was satisfied with their goaltending situation even before Mrazek was injured. Remember, he was put on waivers near the deadline. Kyle Dubas did not pursue a replacement goaltender other than the rumoured Chicago Blackhawks trade negotiations. Kallgren has done well, but Toronto likely doesn’t want to put a rookie goalie in net in the playoffs. Michael Hutchinson is also in the organization, but that’s another less-than playoff calibre goalie.
Not addressing the net at the deadline may be one of the more significant gaffes of Dubas’ career. He dealt a third-round draft pick to Calgary last season to get David Rittich. As a result, Toronto went into the playoffs with three veteran goalies. That’s not the case this season. Toronto will enter the playoffs with Campbell, who is playing his first full season as a starter, a rookie in Kallgren, an injured and not very good Mrazek and Hutchinson, who hasn’t had much NHL action this season.
With the addition of Mark Giordano, the defence is no longer the weakness on this team, and the offence has long been the strongest. But none of those links will matter if the goaltending does prove to be the weakest. Toronto will be going home early, and someone will likely say, you are the weakest link, goodbye.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.