When Petr Mrazek signed a three-year, $11.4 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the offseason, it represented a philosophical change in how goalies would be deployed by the team. During the time that I’ve covered the team, there’s been a clearly delineated starting goalie – so far, always Frederik Andersen – and a clear back-up goalie. That back up goalie was always a bit “less-than” and never seemed to have the ability on his own to become as good as the starter.
The first Maple Leafs’ backup goalie I knew was Garret Sparks. Clearly Sparks wasn’t as good as Andersen. Then came Michael Hutchinson, who valiantly tried but also was clearly second to the starter. Eventually, Jack Campbell was brought to the team; and, given time and circumstances, he proved valuable enough that the Maple Leafs allowed Andersen to walk during the offseason to the Carolina Hurricanes.
It Was 60 Games for the Starter, About 15 for the Backup
Prior to Sheldon Keefe taking over as the head coach, Maple Leafs’ fans will recall the deployment former head coach Mike Babcock used. The stronger starting goalie played about 60 games and the weaker backup played all the tougher back-to-backs and added a few other games to bring his total to about 15 games per season.
I have no doubt that Babcock’s strategy was meant to keep the starter winning, thus building his confidence. To do that, the backup always tended to the tougher assignments: should the team win, that was a bonus. Although Keefe didn’t always throw the backup to the wolves, a similar goalie/game split was employed.
Regular Season Worked OK, Then Came the Maple Leafs’ Postseason
We know how that worked. That plan put tremendous pressure on the starting goalie to stay sharp. Any goalie weakness or injury almost spelled team disaster for the team. In truth, the philosophy worked well during Andersen’s first four seasons with the team because he stayed healthy. During each of his first three seasons, he played over 60 games: 66 games (season one), 66 games (season two), and 60 games (season three). During his fourth season, he fell off to 52 games.
During those seasons, the regular season went smoothly. However, Andersen played less well during the postseason. He couldn’t sustain his solid regular-season play and the Maple Leafs lost every single first-round series. Could it be that he was simply worn out? Was it in part the system’s fault?
The Old Maple Leafs Goalie System Was Flawed
Bringing in Mrazek changes things. Now there will be two goalies who have been or who could each be a starter in their own right. Campbell had a great 2020-21 season, and Mrazek’s body of work as a starter has been solid over a longer span. Clearly, however, it will be a 1A and 1B philosophy.
I believe the Maple Leafs’ brain trust saw the previous philosophy of “great starter, weaker backup” as a flawed system, especially come playoff time. During an interview after Mrazek was signed, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas noted as much.
Kyle Dubas Spelled Out the Change in Goalie Philosophy
As Dubas noted, “We were fortunate going in that we already had [goalie] Jack Campbell who we feel very strongly about. We felt we needed to find a strong partner for him so we can have as good a tandem as possible and we felt we achieved that with Petr today. We really wanted someone with a long track record of being a very good goaltender in the League and from that point on it was trying to find the best value, which we feel we did with Petr.”
Then Dubas spelled out what Mrazek brought to the team. “His track record of success, he’s been a very good tandem partner in Carolina for the last number of years. We like his competitiveness and everything behind the scenes, everything checks out as strong. When I spoke to him today he was very open about how he sees himself in that partnership with Jack, and it’s about supporting each other but pushing one another. We like Jack a lot so we wanted to find someone who could be a good partner and not be disruptive in that regard.”
For Mrazek’s Part, He’s Ready to Play in Toronto
Mrazek noted that he looked forward to coming to the team. Furthermore, he hinted that he wanted to pull on a Maple Leafs’ jersey. “I was really happy when (his agent, Gerry Johannson) said Toronto reached out. The team they have, and the history of Toronto, is great. It was an easy choice.” (from “In signing Petr Mrazek, Dubas figures he has a ‘strong partner’ for Campbell in Maple Leafs net, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 28/07/21).
One thing Mrazek noted was the team’s offense. “The team in front of the goalies is powerful, has a lot of skill and guys can score goals and win games.” Reading between the lines suggests that Mrazek believes he’s a good enough goalie to stop shots; and, if the team can score, they can win.
Nothing Mrazek said suggested any lack of confidence. He announced, “I think the last three seasons, I established myself to find a way to win important games.”
Finally, he noted how much he’d enjoy playing in Toronto and suggested he was ready to handle the notoriously difficult Maple Leafs’ fans: “Those (Leafs) fans, they love hockey. They will do anything for a team. I think those fans are great.”
The Jury’s Still Out, But the Trial Has Begun
Moving from a goalie philosophy based on a clear starter and backup to a more balanced 1A and 1B will be a change for Maple Leafs’ fans. I know I’m looking forward to the difference. I also know I’m looking forward to a confident Mrazek sharing the net with Campbell.
One reason I’m looking forward to the changes suggests something I’ve come to appreciate about Campbell in goal (and as a person). I believe he’ll take to the change well. He’s a team player first and will be supportive of his new partnership.