We’ve reached a point in the 2021-22 season where team needs are really starting to present themselves ahead of the trade deadline. Just over two weeks out from March 21, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit third in the Atlantic division with a record of 35-15-4. Although they left the month of February with a winning record, it was the busiest, shakiest month of the season.
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Fresh off a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, one of the team’s major flaws over the past month has been their goaltending. A little over a month ago, right around the time goaltender Jack Campbell started to slump, I wrote a piece on why the Maple Leafs had to start spreading the load between Campbell and Petr Mrazek as they approached their busiest month of the year.
Well, they did, and let’s just say that Mrazek didn’t really run away with the job. Despite the team going 7-4-1 in February, the struggles in the crease were consistent throughout the month and the Maple Leafs were forced to outscore their problems in many of their victories. With that, fans and media alike have started floating the idea of the Maple Leafs addressing their goaltending situation at the trade deadline.
It’s impossible for me to predict any trades over the next few weeks, especially for a team like the Maple Leafs who often don’t leak much before pulling the trigger on a deal. But assuming they don’t make a trade in the crease, their hopes of accomplishing anything in the postseason will come down to Campbell.
Maple Leafs Have Had Goaltending Inconsistency in 2022
The collective goaltending slump between Campbell and Mrazek in the new calendar year has been the team’s biggest issue. In 12 starts in 2022, Campbell has only managed a SV% above .900 in five of them. More recently, he was between the pipes for a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues on 33 shots, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on 30 shots, and a performance against the Detroit Red Wings that saw him get pulled after allowing three goals in five minutes to start the third period. The Maple Leafs were leading the Red Wings 7-2 heading into the third in that game, and wound up winning 10-7 — certainly not a game that should have been as close as it was.
And while Mrazek hasn’t been terrible, he hasn’t really given the Maple Leafs a reason to feel confident giving Campbell a proper rest. He picked up a bit of a heavier workload in February with Campbell’s struggles, and finished the month with a record of 4-2-0, but only had a SV% over .900 in three of those six games.
To pin this entirely on the goaltending would be unfair; the Maple Leafs have had their fair share of defensive breakdowns in the new year. But at the same time, there have been too many games when the Maple Leafs have done more than enough to give themselves a chance to win, but their goaltenders can’t buy a save. And while they’re normally more than capable of outscoring their problems, more consistency between the pipes down the stretch will be a must headed towards the playoffs.
Maple Leafs’ Campbell Has Better Odds of Finding His Game
The main difference between Campbell and Mrazek here is that the latter’s struggles have been apparent all season. Between an injury-plagued first half, and a struggle to find consistency in the second half, it would be a lot to ask Mrazek to suddenly find his game, steal the crease, and become “the guy” for the Maple Leafs towards the playoffs.
On the other hand, Campbell was nothing short of elite for the Maple Leafs from March until November 2021. He pounced on the opportunity when former Maple Leafs starting goaltender Frederik Andersen battled his own injury struggles in 2020-21, to the point where he essentially stole the crease. He carried his success into 2021-22, including a month of November that saw him finish with a SV% of .959 and a goals against-average (GAA) of 1.27, earning him NHL second star of the month honours and putting him in the early conversation for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Campbell has played at an elite level as recent as earlier this season, and all things considered, this is really his first true slump during his time with the Leafs. While Mrazek has demonstrated the ability to play at that level in the past, the Maple Leafs have better odds in banking on Campbell to turn it around sooner than Mrazek.
Maple Leafs Acquiring a Goaltender Would Be Difficult
If neither of the Maple Leafs’ goalies turn it around at any point over the next two weeks, there still remains the option to trade for a goaltender. However, it wouldn’t be easy. Mrazek is locked in with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.8 million over the next two seasons, so finding a suitor for him would likely be a tough sell on top of spending the assets to find a replacement.
On top of this, Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman said on the 32 Thoughts Podcast that he believes the Maple Leafs are going to hope the goaltending situation sorts itself out rather than search for an upgrade through a trade. It’s a risky decision right now, seeing the performance they’ve gotten from their goaltenders in the past two months or so, but we’ve all seen what Campbell is capable of. It’s hard to imagine that he just lost his skill over the span of two months.
If the Maple Leafs were to shoot for a legitimate starting goalie between the pipes, the options are limited, and would be tough to make work. Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury‘s name has been floated around in trade rumours, but he carries a cap hit of $7 million that expires at the end of the year. The Maple Leafs will only have that kind of money to work with if they put defenseman Jake Muzzin on the injured reserve, but even then, that cap space could be used in other areas, such as for a top four defenseman or a top six winger.
Maple Leafs’ Playoff Hopes Hinge on Campbell
This sounds like a bit of a dramatic statement, but let me make one thing clear. The Maple Leafs’ hopes of making the playoffs aren’t in jeopardy. However, their ability to make a run will hang on Campbell’s shoulders. We saw where Carey Price got the Montreal Canadiens last season. We saw what Andrei Vasilevskiy did for the Lightning during both of their Stanley Cup runs.
Campbell doesn’t have to play lights out hockey every single night, but the Maple Leafs won’t be going anywhere in the playoffs if his SV% keeps hanging below .900. The Maple Leafs are built as an offensively-driven team and I would still say their team defense as a whole is light years ahead of where it’s been in the past.
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So long as their offense doesn’t disappear like it did against the Canadiens, and their defense remains stable, I like the odds of this group making noise in the postseason. But with the likelihood of the Maple Leafs facing one of the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Florida Panthers in the first round, who both happen to be offensive powerhouses themselves, the Maple Leafs won’t survive a series against either with subpar goaltending.
Campbell performed well enough in 2020-21 for the Maple Leafs to feel comfortable moving on from Andersen, their starter of five seasons. He performed well enough that general manager Kyle Dubas was comfortable with signing a 1B type of goaltender in Mrazek versus another bonafide starter. He picked up the slack and rose to the occasion when Mrazek battled injuries at the start of the season. And now, the Maple Leafs need him to show them why they put this faith into him.
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.