The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a very precarious situation at probably one of the most important and intense part of the season.
Goaltending concerns have started to creep in with the play of both Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. A position that really needs to be at its best. On the other side of things, the defense has been highly suspect with poor positioning and efforts. Especially when you look at major loses to teams lower than them in the standings, like the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks. The Maple Leafs managed to get a 5-4 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The team is now at a crossroads where both positions should be addressed before the deadline. More importantly, they need to come together and help each other out as the struggles continue to be at the forefront.
Goaltending Needs to Get Back on Track
To say that goaltending for the Maple Leafs in the second half has been underwhelming is an understatement. Both Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek haven’t given the team the saves they need in order to get a victory.
The struggles in net are coming at probably the worst possible time with the trade deadline looming and the home stretch for the playoffs. With a starter struggling and a backup, while looking good at times, hasn’t come through as well as the team had hoped. Even with Mrazek getting more starts, it has been a roller coaster at times.
After coming in as the starter, Campbell has carried the load for them in the first half with Vezina like numbers in the first three months of the season. Lately, he has struggled to keep the puck out of the net. His save percentage in Jan. and Feb. were .880 and .894 and goals against average were 3.57 and 3.42 respectively. His last quality start was back on Feb.17 where he stood tall against a deep Pittsburgh Penguins team. The consistency just hasn’t been there as of late. In his last four starts, Campbell has given up more goals than expected at five-on-five.
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When looking at Campbell’s quarterly numbers from Dobber Frozen Tools, the differences are staggering compared to where he was before.
Ever since coming off the long COVID-19 layoff, Campbell has struggled to find his game. The SV% are down, the goals against are higher and the saves above average are in the minus. He has been shaky a number of times, he hasn’t looked confident and needs to regain his composure that stood out before.
He’s aware of the challenges that he’s faced and is working on getting back to form. During the second intermission of the Vancouver Canucks game, Kelly Hrudey talks about the mental side of the game and gave his own personal story about dealing with a stretch of games similar to Campbell’s.
This was a really great perspective as once again, mental health is always important. Players are human beings as well and they do go through rough stretches. Once Campbell is able to find some confidence, things will look up as he’s known to overcome those hurdles. According to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, Campbell stated post-game, “Not happy with giving up any goals ever, so it’s not acceptable, but trying to have it roll off a little bit easier now. I know I got better for the team, and it’s disappointing not getting the win when we played so well.”
He then added, “I promise I’ll get out of it and get on a roll again.”
Campbell has the full vote of confidence from his teammates and general manager Kyle Dubas– as he full confidence in his goalies. While he did look better in the game against the Canucks, despite the stat line, is the Campbell that we witnessed before on the verge of breaking out again?
Head coach Sheldon Keefe seems to think so, as he believes he’s close to rediscovering his game. If Campbell is able to overcome this hurdle and provide stellar goaltending, then lookout. Even if Mrazek is able to find some consistency, this can be a very strong goaltending duo.
While the goaltending situation does need to sort itself out, the defense hasn’t been any better in front of both Campbell or Mrazek as they haven’t got help at times either. Like their struggles to start the season, they appear disorganized and struggle in front of the net.
Since Jan.1st, the Maple Leafs are near the bottom of the standings ranking 26th overall in goals against with 91 and 22nd in goals against per game with 3.50. They have given up 30 shots per game in that span. While the shots against are okay, the goals remain high. Making this a problem for not only the goalies, but the defense as well.
The Maple Leafs get taken advantage of easily in front of their own net, leaving the goaltenders to fend for themselves. They get pushed around easily and have a hard time to tie up the opposition and fight to clear out the front of the net. They get out of position easily leaving opposing players wide open for second or third scoring opportunities. Keefe alludes that the defense can do a lot more in order to help the goaltenders out.
There’s no better example than with the Maple Leaf game against the Canucks. Timothy Liljegren is initially in good position trying to box out J.T. Miller. However, after the rebound he loses sight of the puck and positioning of Miller, as he outmuscles Liljegren for the loose puck, Liljegren fails to tie him up and Miller scores the opening goal.
Lately, more goals are being scored off of deflections and then trickle in behind the goaltender. Too many times the players are in the shooting lanes and then get out of the way to let their goaltender see the shot or get knocked out of position. Ultimately, it deflects off them with multiple bounces that lead to a goal.
Brodie was guilty of this on the second Canucks goal as the puck deflects off his skate after losing position of his assignment. Even on the fourth, he loses his assignment as Pearson tips in the initial shot. If they’re going to be in those lanes, they should make the attempt to block the shot and break the play up instead of moving out of the way at the last second.
They really need to focus in on their strength and coverage in front of the net and being able to get into the lanes. This would help them out tremendously in being able to regain control and their goaltender in dealing with difficult pinball shots, especially through traffic.
Even though defenseman Jake Muzzin hasn’t been at his best this season, there were times where he was a difference maker. Muzzin has been capable of blocking shots and boxing opponents out, especially when he’s in front of the net. His presence is needed. Keefe has even stated that they’re missing Muzzin greatly in the lineup. The fact that they aren’t rushing him back so he can be 100 per cent is a good sign that hopefully, they’ll get the Muzzin that has been a force since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings.
The absence of Muzzin, the minutes he eats and his play is evident as the Maple Leafs aren’t as competitive or strong in their own end. He has the defensive mindset to change that. With a healthy Muzzin back in the fold, it may very well be the boost the team needs to get over this poor defensive play.
Both Need to Come Together
With the recent struggles the Maple Leafs have faced in their own end and in the crease, there’s no doubt that both positions need to step their game up and find that level of compete that they had previously. The defense needs to do their part to provide better coverage and get into the shooting lanes to help their goaltender and the goalies need to be able to make the necessary saves.
Once that happens, the Maple Leafs will once again be a complete team.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.