When the NHL trade deadline came and went on Mar. 21, the Toronto Maple Leafs elected not to upgrade what was seemingly a fragile situation in goal.
Their incumbent starter, Jack Campbell, was in the midst of a massive slide in his performance. Petr Mrazek, signed to three-year, $11.4 million contract to be his support system, also struggled.
“I promise I’ll get out of it,” Campbell said after a particularly poor performance against the Vancouver Canucks on Mar. 5. He allowed five goals on 28 shots, but it was the type of goals he was allowing at the time that made you suspect something was wrong.
Later in the month, Campbell suffered a rib injury and he played through it for a few games before the Maple Leafs shut down the goaltender for nearly a month.
The time away appeared to do the goaltender some good. Campbell went a perfect 7-0-0 in April while posting a .915 save percentage, far bette than the sub .900 numbers he had in the previous three months. It was play more reminiscent of the goaltender who was voted to his first NHL All-Star Game this season after a solid first two months of the season.
“Just playing the way he was earlier in the season, that was a big priority for us was to get him healthy and have him confident and rolling in the net,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Campbell. “That’s exactly where we’ve left off here. He’s feeling good and that’s good news for us.”
Campbell has long dealt with confidence issues throughout his NHL career. Selected 11th overall at the 2010 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars, the Port Huron, Michigan native struggled for years to get his game going at the NHL level. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2016 that the goaltender started getting regular big-league reps as a backup.
A trade to the Maple Leafs in 2020 opened up more of a door for Campbell and in 2021, he set the NHL record for wins to start a season with 11 and unseated Frederik Andersen to become the starter in Toronto. The 30-year-old performed well in his first NHL playoffs as he recorded a .934 save percentage but was particularly hard on himself after the deciding Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
“The worst goal of my career happened in Game 7 and it’s just unacceptable,” he said on May 31.
The management of Campbell has been a theme since the goaltender struggled in the 2022 portion of this season. One day before getting ready to start in his second playoffs, the goaltender was light on specifics when responding to questions from the media. He repeated answered questions by saying he was feeling good and learning not to get too high from the highs or too low from the lows.
Last month, he did mention that he was working with newly hired performance coach Greg Harden the same person best known for his work with seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady
”He just really gets you to want to be the best version of yourself,” Campbell said.
Other than that, the Leafs have spent much of the final weeks of the season doing their best to ensure that the Vezina-like performance the goaltender put in during the first couple of months is the goaltender they see beginning Game 1 against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
”He looks at it as a great challenge and opportunity knowing that there’s a world-class goalie at the other end that, like their team, has been the class of the league,” Keefe said of Campbell while referring to Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. “But I certainly know that Jack is up for the challenge.”
His teammates seems to be sure of that, too.
“I don’t think his confidence ever really wavered. I’m sure ours didn’t really either,” Auston Matthews said of Campbell. “I think it’s just a matter of finding his game getting into a nice rhythm. He’s been playing unbelievable for us this year and as of late as well. He gives us confidence when we’re out there and obviously we’re trying to do the same for him.”
Game 1 is unlikely to tell all of Campbell’s recovery story this season. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the upcoming playoff run will likely give an indication of the goaltender’s future in Toronto.
It won’t necessarily be how Campbell performs overall, but rather, how he responds following a bad goal, If he bounces back, the Leafs stand a great chance of getting past the first round for the first time since 2004. If it snowballs like it has during stretches of this season, there is no other line of defence.
Mrazek is skating but still injured. Rookie Erik Kallgren has played in 13 games this season and will back him Campbell, but it’s an option the Leafs hope for dear life to avoid.
Stable goaltending from Campbell is Toronto’s only chance and this series will determine if he has truly made that step to becoming a bonafide No. 1 goaltender.
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