With Morgan Rielly locked in long-term, attention in the Toronto market has naturally shifted to pending unrestricted free agent Jack Campbell.
There were conflicting reports about whether the Leafs have already engaged in negotiations – Nick Kypreos reported talks were underway, but Campbell’s agent emphatically refuted the report.
It wouldn’t be a normal week in Leafs Nation if there wasn’t a good player on an expiring contract to argue about.
In Campbell’s case, he has been nothing short of spectacular since he was acquired by Kyle Dubas, sporting a sparkling 26-7-4 record with hardly any bad performances to speak of (although I’m sure someone will mention the goal to open Game 7 vs. Montreal).
Right now, it feels like the price tag is increasing with every game, and it’s a fair argument to make. Campbell is in the upper echelon in terms of save percentage this season on the heels of a super-impressive 2020-21 in which he wrestled away the starter’s role from Frederik Andersen and never looked back.
The Leafs brought in a legitimate 1B presence to compete with him over the offseason, but Petr Mrazek is already hurt and at no point has Campbell been genuinely challenged for the starter’s role so far (note: Mrazek did generally play well in the limited glimpses we’ve seen of him).
On the surface, there’s not much to dislike about committing to Campbell, but it’s also relevant to keep his overall career story in mind. Campbell has yet to play 100 games in the league and turns 30 in January. His career-high in starts in a single NHL season is 31, and the most pro games he has ever played in a single season is 53. Only one other time has Campbell surpassed the 40-game mark as a professional.
The track record over his pro career is obviously limited. At the same time, Campbell has been great since stepping foot in Toronto, and goaltending is by far the weirdest position in the sport. Far be it from me to suggest a goalie turning 30 with no real history as a legitimate starter can’t do it for several seasons moving forward.
If you’re the Leafs, what’s the best approach at this point?
Do you wait and see how the season plays out – Campbell’s first 82-game campaign as a starter — to see if he can actually stay healthy and also sustain his high level of play? In doing so, you risk driving up the price.
Do you say let’s try to cut the cost down by locking him in right now – understanding that the Leafs already have cap issues – and bet that he will continue to be what he has been in Toronto for the foreseeable future?
Personally, I’d let the season play out. He has never proven he can be a 55+ game starter, and you aren’t exactly betting on a young superstar here. Some of the figures being thrown around ($5.5-6 million) are pretty wild for a goalie his age who has never been a true starter over an 82-game season. If he proves he can handle the workload and stay healthy without a dropoff in play, great — at least you can feel better about the price tag and slot in his annual average accordingly. The worst thing that can happen for this organization is signing a goalie to a bad contract with term. Those contracts are completely immovable if they go south.
The sad reality of a cap world is that you’d rather lose a goalie because he’s worth too much on the open market over signing a goalie to an inflated deal that cripples the team’s cap situation. It’s the lesser of two evils.
– There have been some shifts in time on ice allocation since the blowout against Pittsburgh. Most notably, Nick Ritchie is out of the top six (he was averaging the sixth-highest even-strength time on ice per game) and replaced by Alex Kerfoot, who is playing over two minutes more per game at even strength now per game. Michael Bunting, who has been fifth in even-strength time on ice per game pretty well all season, is seeing around a minute and a half more there per night.
John Tavares has averaged more than Marner at even strength the last six games, seeing a near 45-second increase per game. On the bottom end, there have been upticks in ice time for Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, and Pierre Engvall as the Leafs’ fourth line has really come to life in the last few weeks (including the Pittsburgh loss where they scored the team’s only goal).
– It was interesting to see that David Kampf went from playing head and shoulders more than any other forward on the penalty kill – about a minute higher than any other forward – to second behind Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs clearly want Kerfoot – Marner out as their top penalty-killing unit.
– Fun with small samples on the penalty kill: Kerfoot took one shorthanded faceoff out of the Leafs’ first 40. Since that time, he has taken four of 28. It’s minute, but putting him out there for a few more faceoffs certainly helps swing the ice time when they use Kampf as a faceoff specialist.
– Against Boston, the Leafs conceded on their first penalty kill of the game. Kampf lost the faceoff to start the next one, and Boston created a chance. The faceoff switched to the other side, Spezza won the next faceoff, the Leafs cleared, and Boston never set up properly again.
– In the past six games, Mitch Marner is averaging an extra shot per game (3.6) than he did to start the season (2.6). At the times when his confidence is low, he is clearly passing up shooting opportunities. At times, teams are daring him to do it and/or they are just sagging off him to cover his linemates instead.
– On Marner’s beautiful goal against Vegas, Timothy Liljegren made a really nice play just before to gain the zone on the rush on his offside, hold the puck on his backhand, draw in defenders, and bump it back to Marner. Because he drove the net afterward, the forward covering him followed him there, then lost his coverage in front. That’s who Marner ultimately scored beside. The 17:49 Liljegren played that night was a career-high. While his ice time dipped a bit against better teams (16:07 vs. Tampa Bay and 15:03 vs. Boston), he has not looked out of place.
– It’s worth mentioning because we always hear about it when it doesn’t work: The drop-pass PP breakout directly led to an Auston Matthews goal against the Bruins. It has generally been fine as of late as well. People are quickly frustrated by it — it looks terrible when it isn’t working — but the problem has never been the play itself. It’s the lack of a countermove when the opponent completely sells out on it, especially when the Leafs have a good puck carrier like Morgan Rielly leading the rush.
“One thing that we have been trying to concentrate on is our gaps. It is a timing issue and sometimes tough to adjust to. When you want to be up tighter, sometimes you end up getting beat. And the pace of play — we want to play quick. Instead of building things, try to get it up to the forward’s hands as quickly as we can.”
– TJ Brodie on the team’s pace of play
This is an interesting comment considering we pointed out Auston Matthews’ frustration on the bench last week about how slow the team was playing. Against Vegas and Boston, I really thought they came out trying to push the pace and assert play, which was great to see.
That’s when the Leafs are at their best: playing fast and dangerous off of the rush while also sustaining offensive-zone time. I think they probably realized that they were taking things too far the other way, and for a team that has the Leafs’ kind of firepower, you have to find a better balance.
“Talked to him again today. We didn’t intend him sitting this long frankly, but it’s just the way it’s gone. The others have played well, the team’s played well. It’s on him to stay engaged and be ready. (Liljegren) sat a long time and hasn’t missed a beat”
– Sheldon Keefe on sitting Justin Holl
I find it strange that this is the case in October/November of an 82-game season, but in the playoffs last year, the whole defense played exceptionally in a Game 4 win to go up 3-1 in the series, yet Travis Dermott was promptly taken out for Game 5.
“The frustrating part is I didn’t feel like the Leafs beat us. I feel like we beat ourselves.”
– Jon Cooper after the loss to the Leafs
In Toronto, it’s a big win, but Tampa is probably looking at it and thinking: We went on the road, were better for two of the three periods, we missed a collection of incredible opportunities in the third to ice the game, and Victor Hedman made an uncharacteristic mistake in the final minute. Jack Campbell was obviously excellent — and the Leafs did well to keep pushing — but I always try to keep an eye on how the opposing coaches view the game to understand a different perspective.
Tweets of the Week
The Sun has learned that ‘pioneer’ Leafs skating instructor Barb Underhill is leaving her full time role to spend time with family. A look at her influence on the team and the NHL the past decade: https://t.co/CYzb4L5ZAm
— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) November 6, 2021
In case you missed this news, Barb Underhill is leaving the Leafs (after grooming her replacement prior to leaving). She was, I would argue, one of the 10 most important people in the Leafs organization over the past 10 years. She created personalized skating programs for every individual and the gains were obvious for even the casual observer to see.
Mason Marchment went from an undrafted projected to an NHL player largely because his skating improved. Even a high-pedigree player such as Morgan Rielly improved his skating motion and body control under Barb. She was an incredible asset to the organization — really, hockey in general — and will be sorely missed.
Toronto's last 10 goals:
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) November 7, 2021
It has been interesting to watch the discourse this week in Leafs Nation as the team essentially corrected itself and went on a nice winning streak fuelled by their stars regressing to the mean. I don’t think anyone thought Mitch Marner was going to stay on his 13-point pace or that Auston Matthews would be left off the scoresheet with regularity.
The first step in any season is making the playoffs, and in that sense, the winning streak is important in order to reposition the team in the standings. It’s not meaningless. But all of the same questions remain whether they are winning or losing at this point. If Marner plays over 23 minutes and puts up four points, as he did against Boston, the Leafs are likely going to win a ton of games. But when he doesn’t, and when their top players are neutralized in the playoffs, what happens then?
I’m still viewing the regular season as an extended audition. Aside from obviously collecting enough points to qualify for the playoffs, I’m not looking for wins as much as signs that we won’t again crumble in clinching games. I don’t even know what the signs are but I’m looking.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) November 5, 2021
I’ve been trying to answer this question myself since the summer. Most of the key indicators are obvious – special teams, controlling 5v5 play, building depth throughout the lineup. But the biggest one for me is how the coaching staff manages the stars, and what they do when they aren’t producing.
So far this season, we’ve seen the Leafs not produce for about half of it, and it was tough to watch. Over the past five games in which they’ve lit the lamp, it’s been great. But can they really just count on four players to produce like this for four straight series? If they don’t, is the answer to just keep playing them a ton of minutes with no other game plan? That still seems to be the case.
Maybe they figure it out in the playoffs, and they all go on a heater – Washington’s core eventually did! – but if they don’t, is there any sort of backup plan or adjustments in mind?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’d insert Kirill Semyonov into a game and sit Nick Ritchie. I like that Semyonov is a center and has shown he can contribute to the penalty kill. I also think that Jason Spezza is better offensively along the wing because he has far less defensive responsibility in that position. Semyonov posted a point per game in the AHL prior to being recalled as well. Plus, Ritchie simply hasn’t looked good. I think we’re passing the point of, “let him work through it,” and heading into, “there are consequences for playing poorly” territory.
2. If Ritchie sits, I think it also gives you an opportunity to hand Ondrej Kase some power-play time, which he deserves. He was a scorer and legitimate top-six forward in this league before injuries derailed his career. He has been good on the checking line, but he’s still a skilled scorer. Give him some opportunity to do so. Pairing him with David Kampf all season is simply not going to help him reach his full potential.
3. I think this week’s two one-timer power-play goals is exactly why the Leafs can simply split up the units and then reunite the big group in critical moments. You can easily have one unit that consists of Auston Matthews and William Nylander launching bombs; pretty well anyone brave enough to stand in front of the net can play there. It doesn’t need to be John Tavares for it to work. That gives them a second unit with Tavares, Jason Spezza, and Mitch Marner to build around — i.e. two good units and more options for the coaches to play with overall. If things go south, they can load up one unit.
4. With Petr Mrazek out for roughly a month, I’d give Jack Campbell the start Friday against Calgary when the team is rested and ready to go, then roll the dice with Joseph Woll the following night against Buffalo. They might as well take a shot and see what they have in Woll at this point. We mentioned this previously when Michael Hutchinson started this season, but the organization really needs to assess what is happening with their goalie scouting, drafting, and development.
5. I don’t think I’d be looking to trade away any defensemen at this time. If one falls hurt, then what? At times, Travis Dermott has been solid in the top four — as has Justin Holl — but I don’t think the Leafs are suddenly at a point where they can start peddling away defensemen in a season where they are planning on contending.