For as long as I can remember the Leafs have had the same problem: the defense and the goaltending can never be good at the same time.
They can certainly be bad at the same time.
Actually this is usually the case.
The Leafs addressed one of those issues under Lou Lamoriello. In June 2016 they gave the 30th overall pick and a second round pick to Anaheim in exchange for pending RFA Frederik Andersen. Immediately he was signed to a 5 year deal at $5M AAV. Bold as it was, the deal made sense for both teams. Toronto was getting a goaltender who had played enough NHL to allow Toronto to be comfortable knowing he was a starting goalie. The Ducks had John Gibson, one of the highest rated goalie prospects in our generation, pushing for the starter’s gig.
What a deal it was. Andersen finished top 10 in Vezina voting for 3 of the five years on his deal. He was easily one of the best goalies around and he did so playing behind a list of elite first pair defenders like: Phaneuf, Zaitsev, Polak, Hunwick, Hainsey, Ceci, and Barrie. Yikes. The fact that he posted consistent .917 to .919 SV% seasons was a true miracle. On top of all that, he played more than any other goalie over that stretch, seeing the most shots year after year by a large margin. He was the Lancelot to Toronto’s Round Table. Arguably being more valuable than any other Leaf from 2016 to 2019.
And then: disaster. Late into the 2018-2019 Frederik Andersen injured his groin. He has never been the same. The playoff performance upon his return was not exactly great. But it was Toronto against Boston in the playoffs, we knew the ending of the story before it started. What was more concerning was the following season. In the shortened 2019-2020 season Andersen finished with a .909 SV% a large drop from his average. The signs were obvious that something was bothering him still. He was less explosive and had a harder time tracking pucks laterally. Most shockingly, the big saves started to dry up. Dealing with odd man rushes was a staple in the starting gig for the Leafs, stopping a few of them was part of the job. Freddy could no longer make the saves he shouldn’t have to, the difference between regular and elite goaltending.
The Leafs were in a conundrum during the 2018-2019 season. On the one hand they were not helping Freddy at all, playing some of the worst defensive hockey I have seen in the Matthews era, but at the same time, they had no reliable backup option. Kyle Dubas had picked Garret Sparks the previous season as the backup. He failed miserably. For the 2019-2020 season they were hoping Michael Neuvirth, after signing a PTO, could take over the duties. Neuvirth decided to go to Europe, leaving Toronto with Michael Hutchinson. A situation about as ideal as, I don’t know, say a ship going off course and blocking a canal in Egypt and delaying world trade for a week. Crazy to imagine something as wild as that.
The Hutchinson experiment went worse than expected as proven by his 3.66 GAA and an .886 save percentage. So not only was Freddy playing hurt, but the option was injured Freddy or Michael Hutchinson. To amplify the failings of a proper backup, Mike Babcock would play Hutchinson on the second day of a back to back. Playing his worst goalie during the game where his team was most likely to play poorly as well. A perfect recipe for losing two points. Though when Keefe took over the team had some positives, Hutch remained inconsistent and unreliable. If things weren’t bad enough, Freddy’s injury situation was so bad the Leafs had to sit him in early February.
Long had the Leafs been linked with Georgiev from New York, rumors circulating of the Leafs needing to deal their best prospect, Rasmus Sandin, and several other pieces to pry the Russian from the Rangers. Giving up the moon for an average backup seemed like a gross overpay and uncharacteristic for a calculated GM like Dubas, but it would have been understandable. The situation was desperate.
On February 6, 2020 following a particularly bad game for Hutch, Kyle Dubas made a trade no one saw coming:
My take that evening was: “Jack could not possibly be worse than Hutch.” Take that readers, I was right about something.
Stepping into the void during the Freddy injury, Jack Campbell played five excellent games. In the process Leafs fans were given glimpses of the person that has become the most loved player on the team within days of his arrival. In this case we first noticed the love taps Campbell gives his teammates after every whistle.
When the world shut down, we had barely seen Campbell, and we already knew there was talent there. A former 11th overall pick by Dallas, he took his time coming through the OHL, the AHL and eventually getting dealt to LA. There he did well in his limited role: posting a .928 and a .924 in his first two seasons as an NHL player. As the NHL started the bubble playoffs last summer, the conversation shifted to Andersen having time to heal.
All that hype for another embarrassing showing by Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. The narrative was on the lack of production from Toronto’s high end talent. Given their sub 2% shooting percentage, the worst mark in NHL playoff history, I would say it was a little harsh. Columbus owed a great deal to its goalies who played at such an all-star level that even Matthews and co. could not solve them. This narrative overshadowed the clear sign the series brought us: Frederik Andersen can no longer outduel another goalie. Andersen was out-goalied in the play-in round by both Elvis Merzlikins and Korpisalo, good goalies, but not Vezina-caliber.
So we circle back to my original statement: defending and goaltending … never in sync.
This offseason the Leafs acquired TJ Brodie, gave a larger role to Justin Holl, and added Zach Bogosian. A complete overhaul of the right side of the d-corps. One that we can say, 36 games into the season, is absolutely fantastic. The Leafs are actually defending for the first time in 5 years. Their expected goals for and against are at elite levels, high danger scoring chances against are down significantly from last season, and best of all, the odd man rushes Morgan Rielly gives up get broken up by the king of the defensive dive: Timothy Jimothy Brodie. Despite all this, They have one of the largest gaps between their expected goals against and actual goals scored agaisnt. The reason: goaltending. Andersen in particular this year is one of the worst in the league.
He’s hurt, we know this. Sheldon Keefe has made that very clear. It is also clear that he is no longer that elite goalie he once was.
Fortunately, the Leafs are forced to try something else. With Andersen under a long series of evaluations and Jack Campbell’s slow and progressive return from injury, the net has been stolen.
In a *very* small sample size (7 games), this season Campbell has been amongst the best in the league. Stopping pucks at a hilarious and unsustainable .948 SV% and posting 2 shutouts back to back (three weeks apart due to injury). Though Sheldon Keefe has reminded us he is in recovery from an earlier injury this season, it does not seem to hamper his play.
Jack Campbell’s strong play would have given the Leafs a reason to make the switch to him regardless of Andersen’s availability by now.
In every aspect his play is infectious for the team. Obviously they love him, who wouldn’t love a guy that nice? But they have tangibly different playing styles in front of Jack as opposed to Hutchinson and Andersen. They play to their strengths because they know the inevitable breakdowns will most likely get a save. Having confidence in your goaltender eases everyone else’s stress levels, and increases their performance.
The biggest thing for Leafs management is his cap hit. At $1.65M this season and next, if he can be a league average starting goalie, they could not ask for more. Andersen is a UFA at season’s end and it is fairly clear that he will not be re-signing with the team. The Leafs cannot afford a raise from current salary, nor does he deserve one.
It is unreasonable to expect a goalie to steal every game, but asking them to keep you in them is the bare minimum. Right now Jack Campbell is above and beyond that. His play has placed him in elite territory.
The talent was never in question with Jack. He would not be the first goalie to find his game around 29 years old. Mike Smith, Tim Thomas, among others became starters late in their twenties. To say it’s impossible is a lie.
The best part about Jack Campbell is how easy he is to root for.
Nobody wants his success more than Leafs fans, but right behind them is Kyle Dubas, who could have his goalie question solved in another fleecing of the LA Kings (see Jake Muzzin trade for the other one). Elliotte Friedman mentioned the Leafs have kicked tires on a few goalies in case Andersen is unable to return. Whatever goalie he does or does not acquire, they will sit firmly on the bench until we know what Jack Campbell looks like as a starter.
So is Jack Campbell the answer? Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but he has earned the chance to prove himself.
(All stats provided by NHL.com)
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Hot Sauce Family and check us out on Youtube! This week on Healthy Skrath I sit down with Spence and Tyler to discuss the Buffalo Sabres, Eric Staal, Tim Peel and of course the NWHL Playoffs!