Look, I’m no happier to be here right now than you are. Asking What’s the deal with the Maple Leafs? is a fool’s errand at the best of times, let alone before the trade deadline and still two months out from the playoffs. They are confounding, is what they are—as much to their own front office as to observers. They are a danger, but to themselves as much as to others. They are a high-priced sports car doing 90 but ready at any minute to fly apart and smash headlong into a tree. They are, in short, basically what they have been for the last half-decade: fearsome up front, mediocre-to-questionable on the blue line, and a time bomb in net. What that has earned them is a series of first-round exits, but perhaps this year is different. Perhaps this offense is talented enough to overwhelm opponents and paper over the cracks, and perhaps this streaky goalie has what it takes to win in the postseason. Perhaps! But these suppositions too have been part of the annual tradition. You can’t achieve disappointment without them. Anyway, the Leafs nearly blew a 7-2 lead last night.
If it’s ludicrous to stock-take after or infer anything from a single game, it’s not nearly as ludicrous as that game itself. Toronto beat the Red Wings on Saturday evening in Detroit by a score of 10-7, and that is no typo. It was the highest scoring NHL game since 2011, and it was an absolutely carnival of bad goaltending. Per MoneyPuck, the game featured 12.2 goals above expected, given the quantity and quality of scoring chances. Both teams yanked their starting netminders, and one of them even brought theirs back in after having to pull his replacement. Jack Campbell, Toronto’s starter, actually had the best numbers of any goalie in this one, even though he allowed five goals on 25 shots. But Campbell gets the coverage because, of the four men who strapped on the pads and watched a bunch of pucks fly past them, he’s the only one who may be counted on by a good team come the playoffs.
The Leafs have to hope it was the third period of this game that was the fluke rather than the first two, though neither were extensively out of character. Because Toronto looked damn good for 40 minutes, utterly outskating and outworking their opponents. “We lost every puck race, every puck battle, every competition battle,” said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, “we lost every single one of them.”
Much of the damage was done by what has emerged as perhaps the best line in hockey, that of Michael Bunting, who is scoring his way to a strong Calder case, Auston Matthews, who leads the league in goals and has somehow found yet another gear this season, and Mitch Marner, who’s having the best shooting and goalscoring season of his career. On Saturday Toronto’s first line combined for six goals and nine assists. Marner, as part of his four-goal game, racked up a natural hat trick in a span of under 10 minutes in the second:
“That line was pretty much unstoppable tonight,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. It’s that line that Toronto will be counting on to overpower playoff opponents, and even ones capable of siccing talented checking lines on them will find it hard to keep them off the board for a full 60. The top line—give or take some sort of coming back to earth for Bunting, who was a career Coyotes AHLer until this magical rookie year—is not the problem. Depth scoring is, though maybe not a huge one. Unfortunately it’s one that may have to go unaddressed, as the Leafs’ desire to pick up a top-six forward at the deadline may fall by the wayside thanks to a greater need for another defenseman. And even that may not be their biggest hole.
Jack Campbell has gone from feel-good story to another in a long line of Leafs goalies with big blinking question marks. He started off this season with a Vezina-worthy run, but since the new year he’s sported a sub-.900 save percentage. His offense has picked him up more often as not—as they did in this one—but it’s hard to compare him to the other netminders the Leafs may face in the playoffs and feel confident about Toronto’s chances against the likes of a Vasilevskiy or a Bobrovsky, to say nothing of potential later-round match-ups in a strong Eastern Conference.
Speaking of great East goalies: That Freddie Andersen thrived the second he got out of Toronto may hint that the Leafs’ back-end woes are significantly a function of their inability to stop a rush or clear the front of their own net, but when Campbell has been bad, he’s been really bad. Campbell entered the third period on Saturday looking to protect a 7-2 lead, and promptly allowed three goals in under five minutes before getting the hook. The first and third goals of this sequence are among the softest you’ll ever see.
“He’s got to be better,” Keefe said of Campbell. “That goal to start the period is a nothing play, really. It’s a routine save that he can make and he doesn’t. And then it kind of still snowballs, obviously, from there.”
Petr Mrazek wasn’t much better, allowing two goals on eight shots in relief, but the Leafs offense yet again bailed the team out, tacking on a few more for the least comfortable 10-7 win you’ll ever see.
“I’m putting Petr Mrazek in a horrible spot,” Keefe said. “I mean, if there’s ever been a time where a goalie knew for sure he wouldn’t be going into a game, that would probably be it. I’m sure he was pretty much already on the plane in his mind. And then all of a sudden, he’s got to go into a crazy game. I thought it was important to make that change at that time.”
It was a crazy game, and a wildly entertaining one—the NHL is perhaps not thrilled that it overshadowed an outdoor game in Nashville. But these Leafs have a way of demanding attention, for reasons both good and … otherwise. No deficit is overwhelming to them, but also no lead is safe. That makes for fun, fascinating hockey to watch, but not an ideal roster with which to enter the postseason. With a later-than-usual trade deadline of March 21, the front office still has time to come to a decision on whether it can trust Campbell to try to reverse historic fortunes. There may be an unusual number of quality goalies available at the deadline, and if Campbell can’t reverse his slide, I’d expect the Leafs to go get one. With a looming first-round matchup against a more complete team, Toronto is still playing catch-up, no matter how many goals it can score.