TORONTO (Jan. 20) — There is nothing so debilitating in professional sport as emotional fatigue. It occurs, primarily, when an athlete is called upon to shoulder a disproportionate load for his team.
Such as with Jack Campbell and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Having provided the Leafs with historic goaltending numbers through the first half of the pandemic–stricken schedule in the National Hockey League, Campbell has suddenly hit a wall, allowing 17 tallies in the past four games. His goals–against average, maintained well beneath 2.00 until this week, has climbed to 2.24, now sixth in the NHL, behind Frederik Andersen (Carolina), Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers), Tristan Jarry (Pittsburgh), Jacob Markstrom (Calgary) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay). Campbell’s save–percentage has dipped below .930 for the first time this season. His 19–6–3 record and four shutouts are unduly responsible for the Leafs keeping company with the top four clubs in the overall standings. But, he’s getting tired. Not so, physically… after all, the Leafs have played only eight games since Dec. 14. It’s Campbell’s psychological fuel supply that is beginning to wane. Which has long been inevitable for goalies that toil behind the forever–middling Toronto defense. Smilin’ Jack held out longer than the bulk of his predecessors. Only now, is he showing the familiar, recognizable strain.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not after Kyle Dubas coughed up $11.4 million for three years of service from veteran stopper Petr Mrazek. The prudent intention was for Campbell and Mrazek to more–or–less share the load as the Leafs re–entered competition against all teams in the NHL. Sadly for the club, Mrazek’s chronic groin issues arose after his first start (Oct. 14 at Ottawa) and flared again after his second appearance (Oct. 30 vs. Detroit), prompting six weeks of inactivity. Owing to injury and games postponed by the Omicron variant, Mrazek has spelled Campbell only four times in 37 matches. Not nearly enough to sustain Campbell through the mushy middle of the schedule; the so–called dog days of January. Neither did assuming 75 percent of the goaltending burden benefit Frederik Andersen, who regularly pooped out toward the end of the season and died in the Stanley Cup playoffs — again, through a combination of too much work and scant personnel on the blue line.
JACK CAMPBELL FOUND HIMSELF INCREASINGLY ALONE ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN NEW YORK. BRAD PENNER USA TODAY
Though the Maple Leafs have performed with improved structure under Sheldon Keefe, there’s no masking that the team has but one semi–elite defenseman (Morgan Rielly)… and a bunch of aging pluggers. It’s the reason that Keefe is trying to figure if youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Tim Liljegren can regularly perform among the top six. Inexperience, however, breeds misstep and confusion. Against arguably the two best teams in the NHL, on their current six–game road trip, the Leafs have been overwhelmed. Colorado and the Rangers skated circles around the Toronto defenders, forcing them into innumerable mistakes and poring 10 shots past a weary Campbell. This trend will not change until the Leafs prove they can prosperously share goaltending minutes… and somehow upgrade the Nos. 1 and 2 defense pairings. It’s likely no coincidence that the Avalanche and Rangers exposed the Maple Leafs after striking gold with Norris Trophy contenders Cale Makar and Adam Fox.
For nearly half–a–century, Leaf GMs have failed to unearth such a precious and rare commodity. Elite defensemen are almost always developed — we still go back to Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull as the last–such pairing in Toronto — and almost never available via trade or free agency. Plugging holes with second and third–tier defensemen in the open market each summer is a fool’s paradise. And, the Leafs are hardly alone in such a futile quest.
None of this, of course, is new.
Even the best Toronto goalies in the post–1967 era have ultimately foundered. It happened with Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, neither of whom could nudge the Leafs beyond Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals and were often routed in elimination matches. Felix Potvin came close, in 1993, until the Wayne Gretzky mystique took hold of that semifinal; the L.A. Kings prevailing in Game 7. Andersen deserves regular–season mention amid this group, but his penchant for allowing soft, untimely goals quickly killed the Leafs in four playoff attempts. Time will tell if Andersen can prevail this spring behind a deeper Carolina blue line. I suspect, however, that Rod Brind’Amour is deploying him too frequently. Enduring stamina has not been the essence of Freddie’s NHL career.
As for now, the Maple Leafs desperately need some quality work from Mrazek. He wasn’t a cheap pick–up at $3.8 million per year and he hasn’t yet provided any bang for Toronto’s buck. If his ongoing groin malady prevents a string of adequate starts, the Leafs will have to gamble with Joseph Woll. It is nearly impossible to envision Campbell holding up amid such a cumbersome load… and behind such a run–of–the–mill blue line.
He is finally — unavoidably — beginning to show some recession.