Maple Leafs Must Play Mrazek More to Get Through Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs have gone through their fair share of goalies in the past decade-plus. Once they moved past the glory days of Curtis Joseph and Felix Potvin, their situation in the crease was in limbo and remained that way up until 2016-17. Frederik Andersen gave the Maple Leafs their first glimmer of what it was like to have a true number one goalie, but even then, it wasn’t enough to get them over the infamous first-round hump.

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So when injuries derailed a good chunk of Andersen’s 2020-21 season, he signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes for a fresh start. And with that, the Maple Leafs headed into the 2021-22 season with Jack Campbell, who emerged as a star netminder in 2020-21, as well as Petr Mrazek, who was coincidentally a member of the Hurricanes last season.

When the Maple Leafs signed Mrazek to a three-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.8 million, the idea was that he and Campbell would share the load of starts in 2021-22. Campbell had never played more than 31 games in a season, and despite his emergence last season, to expect him to come in and take on an Andersen-like workload would be a lot to ask from somebody who had spent the majority of his career to date as a backup.

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But after Mrazek suffered a groin injury only two periods into his time as a Maple Leaf, Campbell’s workload became a whole lot heavier, and he rose to the occasion. To date, he has a record of 19-6-3 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.24 and a save percentage (SV%) of .927. However, his numbers have started to dip a little bit in the new year, while Mrazek has only started five games this season. Plain and simple, Mrazek needs to see some more action. Not just for his own sake, but for Campbell’s sake and the team’s sake as well.

Maple Leafs’ Mrazek’s Stats Not Reflective of His Performance

If you look up Mrazek’s stats right now, they aren’t pretty. But they’re also part of an incredibly small sample size. Even with his win against the New York Islanders on Saturday, which was his best start of the season, he carries a record of 3-2-0 with a GAA of 3.03 and a .899 SV%. It’s also worth noting that all of Mrazek’s prior starts were against weak teams (Ottawa, Detroit, Chicago, and Arizona).

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But if you look at the trajectory of his season to date, how could you blame him for not being at the top of his game in these starts? He was injured two periods into his debut against the Senators and didn’t play for another three weeks. Then, he came back for his second game against the Red Wings, albeit too soon because he re-aggravated his groin injury despite finishing the game and getting the win.

The re-aggravation of his groin injury kept him on the bench for six more weeks before he would return to face the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec 11. The Maple Leafs played one game after that before a COVID-19 outbreak led to a string of postponements. His next start came another month after that game against the Blackhawks, on Jan 12 against the Arizona Coyotes.

Maple Leafs’ Petr Mrazek makes a great save in a win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec 11

Until Saturday’s game against the Islanders, Mrazek never went less than three weeks in between starts. So how could anybody expect him to be at his sharpest when he’s essentially getting a mini-vacation in between starts? Also, Mrazek has started an average of 40 games per season since making the NHL, so it’s safe to say the action he’s seen so far this season is FAR below what he’s used to.

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It’s easy to turn on a player for not being able to stay healthy, but groin injuries are no joke for goalies. His durability has always been a little bit of a question mark, but when he’s at his best, he can post Vezina-like numbers the same way Campbell has so far this season. He started 12 games for the Hurricanes last year and had a GAA of 2.06 with a SV% of .923 before a freak thumb injury caused him to miss most of the season. With the money the Maple Leafs gave him, the best-case scenario is one where he replicates these numbers, and he’s not going to be able to do that unless he’s starting games more than once a month.

Maple Leafs’ Campbell Starting to Show Signs of Fatigue

I know, it sounds odd to say this after the Maple Leafs got three weeks and have only played five games in the past two weeks. I had some people tell me this when I first started suggesting Campbell’s fatigue is starting to catch up to him. And to that, I raise the fact that Campbell has already started 29 games in 2021-22, with his aforementioned career-high in a season being 31.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When the Maple Leafs originally acquired Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings in February 2020, he was supposed to serve as a backup to Andersen and no less. That was his role in L.A. behind Jonathan Quick, and it was expected to be no different in Toronto. But when Andersen’s durability became an issue in 2020-21, Campbell stepped up and showed the Maple Leafs what he was capable of, including a franchise record-setting 11 straight victories to start the season.

He was expected to be a backup in 2020-21 but wound up becoming their regular starting goalie and took it in stride. He was expected to work in a tandem with Mrazek in 2021-22, but when Mrazek’s injury issues flared up, he once again shouldered the majority of the workload and took that in stride, too. But in the new calendar year, Campbell has started to struggle a little bit, albeit no more than the rest of the team, and he knows it too.

With 18 goals allowed in Campbell’s last four starts, it’s safe to say that perhaps the amount of starts he’s seen to date is starting to catch up to him. While this is really his first actual slump so far this season, I think it’s fair to say that while he’ll snap out of it sooner rather than later and return to his previous form, rest is probably in order for him.

Maple Leafs’ Busy February a Perfect Opportunity for Mrazek

The amount of Leafs hockey lately has been pretty minimal. They don’t play again until Wednesday when they host the Anaheim Ducks. But if you’re looking forward to seeing the Maple Leafs in action, then look no further than the month of February. The NHL announced the rescheduling of a total of 98 games throughout February, utilizing the Olympic break as a window to make up for the lost games with no NHLers participating in the festivities.

The Maple Leafs will hit the road to face the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 1. Then, they’ve got five days off due to the all-star break before they face the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 7. After that, they won’t go more than two days between games, accounting for a total of 12 games in 28 days.

Mrazek makes a great save in tight in Saturday’s win over the New York Islanders

With such a heavy schedule in February, this is the perfect opportunity for the Maple Leafs to give Campbell some extended rest and truly see what they’ve got in Mrazek. If I were Sheldon Keefe, obviously the move is to roll with the hot goalie. The Maple Leafs are deadlocked in a battle for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, currently sitting three points ahead of the Boston Bruins, who are in the first wild-card spot. So, with the stakes so high, you simply have to start whoever you can trust more to win you hockey games.

But having said that, I’d probably try to start Mrazek once every three games at least. Use the heavy schedule to see what you’ve got in him, and if Campbell proves to be the better goalie, give him the majority of the starts. If Mrazek begins to outperform him, give him more of an extended look. The bottom line is that they have to do everything they can to get Mrazek playing at the level we know he’s capable of, and he won’t be able to do that until he gets into a rhythm.

Maple Leafs Will Benefit Most From Having Two Reliable Goalies

I know this seems like a captain obvious statement, but it’s easy to look at the two goalies’ performances so far this season and say Campbell’s their guy down the stretch. But if the Maple Leafs continue to use Mrazek strictly as their backup and only start him, say, once a month, then you may as well buy out his contract and call up an AHLer to make those once-a-month starts. Which, I can assure you, the Maple Leafs don’t plan on doing (or at least I hope they don’t).

Not only will starting Mrazek more give him a chance to stay loose and ready to suit up in the event of an injury, but it will also work in Campbell’s favour in the end. I’ll reiterate that he’s already started almost as many games as he ever has in a single season before, and we’ve still got three months of hockey left, give-or-take. We’ve seen what running one goalie into the ground does with Andersen, and it would be stupid for the team to take the same approach with Campbell.

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We all know how important goaltending is down the stretch and especially into the playoffs. And if the Maple Leafs want to make a deep run, they need to have two goalies that they know they can rely on. If they give Mrazek a chance to start some more games and he fumbles the bag, then maybe you look at the possibility of dumping his salary at the deadline. But we know the potential that he has, and getting him into games is the best way to see if he can unlock that potential.

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