336 days ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. A team who finished with a record below .500, and one that just about everybody expected the Maple Leafs to walk all over. It feels like it was just yesterday, and yet, here we are again, discussing the Maple Leafs’ upcoming playoff matchup and what they need to do to get over the hump and finally win a playoff round. Only this year, the first dragon to slay is the back-to-back Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
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“The harder the better,” head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters when asked about facing off against the Lightning in round 1. “I think that’s what we need.”
The Maple Leafs’ issue with playing down to their opponents has been one of prominence this season, dropping multiple contests to teams like the Montreal Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres. Maybe Keefe is onto something here. The Maple Leafs have gone into the playoffs with the odds in their favour for a couple of seasons now and done nothing with it, so maybe the pressure of taking down the back-to-back Cup champs in the first round is just what they need to finally get the monkey off their back.
For the Maple Leafs to come out victorious against the Lightning, a couple of things need to happen. For those things to happen, a couple of players need to step up and earn their money. That’s not to say the series hinges only on these players. Winning a round will require a full team effort, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple of X-factors who could be instrumental in pushing this team over the bump.
Jack Campbell has been one of the best stories to come out of Toronto in the past two seasons. He arrived with the organization at a time when the Maple Leafs needed the services of a competent backup goaltender more than anything else. Then, when Frederik Andersen went down with an injury in 2020-21, Campbell took over the starting role and set a franchise record for consecutive victories to start a season with 11. He carried his success into the playoffs, finishing the series with a .934 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.81 goals against average (GAA). His only real bad moment of that series was the goal he allowed to Brendan Gallagher in Game 7, but the entire team was playing a horrible game at that point.
Campbell started the 2021-22 season posting Vezina-esque numbers, including a .959 SV% through the month of November. But he started to falter when the calendar year flipped over, and he struggled until he was diagnosed with a rib injury in early March. In nine games since returning from that injury, Campbell has a .911 SV%, which is a staunch improvement from his performance between January and March, and just about all the Maple Leafs will need from him in the playoffs.
If nothing else, that stretch of poor goaltending from January to March between Campbell and Petr Mrazek shows that the Maple Leafs won’t be going anywhere if they’re consistently getting sub-.900 goaltending. And they should know this, too, because they were on the other end of it in both 2019-20 and 2020-21 when they ran into a hot Joonas Korpisalo and Carey Price. The Maple Leafs obviously don’t want to find themselves in a position where they need to ask one of Erik Kallgren or Mrazek (if healthy) to take the reigns, so as long as Campbell can get the job done and make the key saves when the team needs him to, they’ll have much better odds of getting past the first round.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner
I’m going to cheat here and use two players, only because they will be playing together for the entirety of the series, and because we saw firsthand what happens when these two don’t show up. After Auston Matthews scored 41 goals in 51 games, and both he and Mitch Marner finished top-5 in league scoring in 2020-21, their offense shriveled up and died in round one. Matthews only scored one goal, and Marner didn’t score at all, as he was limited to just four assists.
Now, the Maple Leafs find themselves in a similar boat. Matthews finished the season with 60 goals and 106 points. Marner scored 35 goals and finished with 97 points of his own. And while these accomplishments are rightfully being celebrated, they’ll quickly be forgotten if we find ourselves sitting here having another “what went wrong?” conversation in two weeks time.
The Maple Leafs pride themselves on being one of the best offensive teams in the entire league. They had seven players register at least 50 points and six players score at least 20 goals. While they did improve their defensive corps, they’re still known and branded as a team that thrives on scoring goals. And I can tell you right now that they won’t be going anywhere if the two players who embody this brand more than anyone else don’t lead the charge.
This one might shock you, and I want to clarify that I’m not saying this playoff series hinges on David Kampf‘s shoulders. Here’s my reasoning; one of the main reasons the Maple Leafs’ top guns couldn’t get anything going in the playoffs last season was because of the Canadiens’ ability to shut them down, aided specifically by the play of current Kings forward Phillip Danault. He did an incredible job of shutting them down and depriving them of any chances in round one, and it paid off.
This past offseason the Maple Leafs signed Kampf to a two-year contract for this exact purpose, and despite the success of players like Michael Bunting this season, one could argue that Kampf was the Maple Leafs’ most important offseason signing. He set career highs on the offensive side of the game with 11 goals and 26 points in 82 games, and it was obvious how much the Maple Leafs relied on him in a defensive role this season. He led almost all Maple Leafs players in average penalty kill ice time at 2:29, second only to Jake Muzzin’s 2:36. Not to mention his 75.8 percent defensive zone starts are higher than anybody else on the team.
Unlike 2019-20 and 2020-21, the Maple Leafs will be facing a team in round one who can torch them offensively, which we saw in that 8-1 defeat at the hands of Tampa Bay last week. This season, they’re going to have to worry about offensive threats bigger than Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cole Caufield. When your opponent stares you down with weapons including the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos, all of a sudden the role of players like Kampf become that much more important, and if the Maple Leafs want to shut them down, Kampf will need to be an instrumental part of that.
Maple Leafs’ Entire Team is an X-Factor
Just like I said at the start of the piece, even though I singled out a couple of X-factors, the Maple Leafs won’t be getting out of the first round unless they get a 100% effort from everybody on the team. We’re coming up on what would be the sixth straight first round loss in a row if that happens, and if they don’t want to sit through another summer of media scrutiny and trade rumours, all the gears are going to have to turn.
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But regardless, fans are about to be treated to one of the most exciting first round matchups in recent memory. Two teams with a blistering hot offense, a great defensive corps, and a goalie who’s capable of getting hot at any point. It’s a shame that one of these two teams will be eliminated so early on, and if you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re doing everything in your power to make sure you aren’t the ones golfing by late May.