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NHL

Jack Campbell Can’t Lose

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 7: Jack Campbell #36 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is congratulated by teammate Auston Matthews #34 for breaking the consecutive win record for a Leaf against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on April 7, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 3-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jack Campbell; Auston Matthews
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

You know the Maple Leafs’ deal. They can score like whoa; their defense is a question mark; their goaltending is a weakness, often a fatal one. It’s been this way for years, and because of the front-heavy talent, a team that can look like world-beaters in the regular season scares precisely no one in the playoffs. Four straight first-round exits speak to the difficulty of finding a good backstop. But even a team as cursed as the Leafs are capable of hitting the lotto sometimes, and they may have done just that with Jack Campbell, the former draft bust who has turned into—for now at least—the hottest goalie in hockey.

After Wednesday’s 3-2 win over possible first-round opponent Montreal, Mitch Marner counted off the relevant numbers:

That’s 10 wins in 10 starts this year for the 29-year-old Campbell, who arrived in a midseason trade last year to compete for a backup job, but since Frederik Andersen went down with a lower-body injury on March 19 has gotten the first consistent NHL work of his career, and made the most of it. With the win, Campbell set the Leafs franchise record for consecutive victories by a netminder, and tied Carey Price’s NHL record for most wins to begin a season.

The other numbers are good, too: In those 10 starts, which include seven of Toronto’s last nine, Campbell sports a 1.58 goals-against average, and a .944 save percentage. His underlying numbers are not quite so spectacular, but they’re all still in the top half or upper third of the league; he’s not just getting lucky out there every night. “He always does something amazing on the ice for our team,” Mitch Marner beamed last week.

Campbell’s story would be a charming one even if he came out of nowhere, but he didn’t come out of nowhere—not all that long ago he was one of the most decorated American goaltending prospects the league had seen. Coming off leading Team USA to gold at World Juniors and back-to-back golds at World U18s, the Dallas Stars made him the 11th overall pick in 2010. And then he just … never panned out. He struggled in the OHL. He struggled in the AHL, repeatedly losing the starting gig. He got demoted even lower, to the ECHL. Though keeping him down was the only way the Stars could logically get him playing time—he certainly wasn’t earning it at higher levels—it did a number on his confidence.

“I was thinking I was gonna be the franchise goalie there and like, nothing else was like, a possibility,” Campbell said. “Like that was the only thing I wanted. And I took it a little too hard (when it wasn’t happening). Every game I played, I took too personally and I wasn’t able to enjoy life very much during that time.”

Campbell, the formerly moon-touted draft pick, ended up playing a grand total of one game with the Stars before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2016 for the proverbial bag of pucks. It wasn’t until 2018 that he earned his first NHL win, at age 26, but by the following year, he had settled down enough for L.A. to entrust him with the backup role, and he did a capable job. Capable enough for the Maple Leafs to trade for him last February when they needed what they thought was just goaltending depth. But Campbell eventually outplayed Michael Hutchinson, and when Andersen went down, Campbell—11 years after being on top of the world—is finally winning again. And again and again.

And, oh my gosh, he could not be happier about it:

So, now we present two large and looming questions. The first is: How’s Freddie Andersen? There has been no update offered on his injury, which feels ominous, though Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said yesterday they’re not worried about him being out for the season. I think the best and most accurate barometer for the Leafs’ concern level on Andersen will be if they made a trade by Monday’s deadline to shore up their goalie depth.

The second question is: If Andersen does come back healthy and ready, does he reclaim the starting job from Campbell? At this point in time, the answer has to be a resounding “no.” Campbell is red-hot, and while no goalie can be expected to keep up a streak of numbers quite like his, no coach in their right mind sits a guy until that streak comes to an end. The fact that Campbell has the backstory he does might suggest that this could be more sustainable than if he’d been some no-name call-up, that he’s merely doing what he’s always had the talent to do, once he regained his confidence and was given the opportunity to start regularly.

That’s the Leafs optimist’s version of the next couple of months, anyway. The pessimist’s (realist’s?) version sees Campbell come back down to earth and Keefe stuck with a tough choice between two middling netminders, never quite settling on either. And if you’ve got 1A and 1B starting goalies, you’ve likely got none. Sorry, but I was not going to let an entire blog go by without knocking Leafs fans down a peg. You guys could use the humility. I’m happy for Campbell, though!