Can Jack Campbell Save the Maple Leafs’ Season?

After weeks of speculation, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas finally did what everyone expected by acquiring a backup goaltender. Jack Campbell, plucked from the Los Angeles Kings along with gritty winger Kyle Clifford, was not the first (or second, or third) name on most people’s wish lists, but with rumours about the sky-high cost of someone like Alexandar Georgiev, the 28-year-old was picked up for a fraction of the price.

Jack Campbell LA Kings
Can Jack Campbell provide much-needed stability in net for the Maple Leafs? (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The move was predictable in that it filled an obvious need, yet unpredictable in that the target wasn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar. But was it the right move?

What do the Maple Leafs see in Campbell that makes them think he can help salvage their playoff hopes, and their season?

Andersen’s Injury Forced Dubas’ Hand

No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that the Maple Leafs needed a shakeup in goal. Through 15 appearances this season, backup Michael Hutchinson posted a dismal .886 save percentage – just barely above Jimmy Howard’s league-worst mark of 0.884. And with a record of 4-9-1, Hutchinson was bleeding goals – and points – for a Maple Leafs team in the thick of a playoff race. Couple that with Frederik Andersen’s recent neck injury, which will keep him sidelined at least day-to-day, and you have a recipe for disaster in net. (from ‘Goaltender Andersen hits the ice, Maple Leafs lose Ceci to ankle injury,’ National Post, 02/06/2020)

On the outside looking in and quickly approaching must-win territory, the Maple Leafs simply couldn’t trust Hutchinson any longer. But more than that, they needed an alternative in goal to Andersen, who’s struggled in his own right this season. Of the 40 goaltenders with at least 25 games played, the Maple Leafs starter ranks 30th in save percentage above expected – a metric that adjusts for shot quality. Even by regular old save percentage, Andersen’s .910 ranks him 18th among that same contingent. Those marks are simply not good enough by Andersen’s standards, and for a high-flying Toronto team that relies on steady goaltending.

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen has been uncharacteristically inconsistent this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

And despite popular narratives about the Maple Leafs’ leaky defence, they’ve actually been surprisingly solid this season. Since Sheldon Keefe took over in late November, Toronto’s mark of 2.29 expected goals against per hour (xGA/60) at five-on-five ranks them 14th in the league. At all situations they fare even better, ranking 10th overall with an xGA/60 of 2.57. The team’s defensive strides have mostly gone for naught, though, thanks to shoddy goaltending, especially at five-on-five.

Related: The Toronto Maple Leafs Need More From Frederik Andersen

While Hutchinson is the easy scapegoat, remember that Andersen has made an appearance in 25 of 31 games since Keefe took over. Perhaps the arduous workload has had something to do with Andersen’s inconsistency, and perhaps Campbell can provide the relief that Toronto’s starter needs.

What Can the Maple Leafs Expect From Campbell?

NHL goalies are notoriously difficult to evaluate given how unpredictable their performances can be from year to year. Take Sergei Bobrovsky, for example, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner posted a save percentage of .919 over his first nine seasons before earning a hefty payday last July with the Florida Panthers. The 31-year-old has struggled mightily this season, though, putting up career-worst marks in both save percentage (.898) and goals against average (3.28). Of course, the Maple Leafs have experienced the same thing firsthand with the usually consistent Andersen and his aforementioned struggles.

But if the best goalies in the league are subject to such inconsistency, that effect is even more magnified for less established netminders like Campbell. Drafted 11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010, Campbell hasn’t quite lived up to that pedigree, appearing in just 58 NHL games so far. While he scattered seven NHL appearances over five seasons from 2013-14 to 2017-18, Campbell found his first regular action with the Kings last season. Through 31 games, he put up an impressive .928 save percentage on a dreadful Los Angeles team that finished second-last in the league. Of all goaltenders with at least 25 games played, Campbell actually ranked third in save percentage and first(!) in save percentage above expected (0.667). Maybe he would live up to his potential after all?

Jack Campbell, Mark Giordano
Campbell was among the league’s best goaltenders last season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Or maybe not.

Things have come crashing down for the Michigan native this season as he’s posted a save percentage of just .900, and a save percentage above expected of -0.747. For reference, that places him right in between Andersen (who’s been bad) and Hutchinson (who’s been really bad).

On one hand, it’s a safe bet for the Maple Leafs: they ultimately just needed a backup that would be an improvement over Hutchinson. Based on the stats, and the fact that Hutchinson has been one of the worst goalies in the league this season, it’s more or less a guarantee that Campbell will be a clear step up. On the other hand, the move is a bit of a stab in the dark: with just 58 games under his belt, Campbell is far from a known commodity. Add in the fact that he was terrific last season but has been relatively poor this season, and you’re left with just as many questions as answers.

Campbell’s Contract and Long-Term Outlook

Somewhat lost in the kerfuffle of the trade and its impact on the Maple Leafs this season is the fact that Campbell is signed for two more years at an average annual value of $1.65 million. That number is a touch high for a backup, especially for a team as cap-strapped as the Maple Leafs. The caveat, though, is that Campbell could very well outplay that deal and pay dividends for Toronto down the road.

Related: Projecting the Maple Leafs’ Future After Andersen

Let’s assume the best: Campbell thrives in Toronto and plays as well or better than Andersen. Turning 31 this year, Andersen is signed for one more year at $5 million, becoming an unrestricted free agent at 32. Are the Maple Leafs going to pony up and pay big money to an aging, declining Andersen when his current deal expires? It seems unlikely, especially with their current salary cap structure. Barring a trade, Andersen’s exit in 2021 leaves Campbell as the starter in Toronto. If he does regain his form (and that’s a big if), the team has now got a solid goalie to carry the torch for at least one more year while they wait for either Joseph Woll or Ian Scott to push for an NHL job.

Jack Campbell Los Angeles Kings
Could Campbell be in the Maple Leafs’ long-term plans? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The opposite outcome is that Campbell’s mediocre play becomes the norm. His cap hit isn’t an anchor by any means, and he should still remain an upgrade over Hutchinson long-term, so the worst-case scenario is that the Maple Leafs have got a slightly overpaid No. 2 netminder.

What the Maple Leafs and their fans really care about right now, though, is keeping their playoff hopes alive. Star players Auston Matthews and William Nylander have found another gear this season, and Toronto remains one of the best teams in the league since Keefe’s debut, with only inconsistent goaltending keeping the team from fulfilling its true potential. Campbell may not be the answer long-term, but the hope is that he can at least help save this season.

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