TORONTO (Mar. 7) — Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is figuratively throwing darts with the most–important aspect of his team. It may not be his fault that neither of the club’s goalies, Jack Campbell nor Petr Mrazek, are performing at a National Hockey League level right now. Still, Keefe has no apparent strategy between the pipes other than to use the next guy after the other guy lost the previous game.
For all the mismanagement of Mike Babcock while routinely burning out Frederik Andersen with 60–plus starts, at least he had a plan. If backfired spectacularly in the playoffs, but no one could accuse Babcock of deploying his goalies erratically. Keefe, on the other hand, told reporters in the past week that Mrazek “has earned a longer look” — that “look” being one whole game, the 5–1 home–ice embarrassment against Buffalo. He then said he had confidence in Campbell emerging from this horrendous, second–half slump, knowing the lone method of such recovery is to play the club’s No. 1 stopper. Which he did — for one whole game, the 6–4 loss at Scotiabank Arena against Vancouver. Now, it’s back to Mrazek for tonight’s match in Columbus and then, evidently, right back to Campbell for tomorrow’s first visit of the Seattle Kraken… regardless of what transpires at Nationwide Arena.
Does that sound like a plan to you? Or, a coach merely grasping at straws?
The sub–headline to Chris Johnson’s column today in the Toronto Star says “The Leafs gave their struggling No. 1 goalie a vote of support, but are kicking the tires on trade options just in case.” No, the Leafs did not give their No. 1 goalie “support”. Keefe deployed him against Vancouver then decided to yank Campbell tonight in favor of Mrazek, who was even worse in the loss to Buffalo. Under no definition of “support” does such a strategy apply.
Neither is it a stretch to assume that the jobs of Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas are on the line if the Maple Leafs take another early vacation this spring. And, no element will be more critical to avoiding such an outcome than stability between the pipes. The big boys up front can score lots of goals — which, of course, they haven’t yet in the post season — and it won’t matter a hoot if the Leafs aren’t getting saves. Therefore, the decision for Keefe and Dubas is binary: Choose a goalie and place full confidence in him. Or, go find someone else before the Mar. 21 NHL trade deadline. There is no third option — particularly one that involves guessing which man could perform well on a given night… then changing your mind when it doesn’t work out. From memory, only the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins have won the Stanley Cup in recent years without a defined No. 1 stopper (Matt Murray and Marc–Andre Fleury shared the role in 26 appearances). Almost every other year in post–expansion history (after 1967), the NHL title has been contingent upon a particular goalie excelling for up to two months.
It is almost certain to not be any different this spring.
How, then, are the Leafs going to meet the standard? It’s a question, right now, without an answer.
Perhaps it cannot be met with either of the incumbents, though I steadfastly maintain that if Keefe goes back to Campbell — and sticks with him — the results will follow. Maybe not immediately, which is clearly the coach’s desire, but in plenty of time before the playoffs, still eight weeks down the road. At the moment, there is no indication that Keefe has confidence in Campbell reverting to his pre–All Star form. Which might turn into a career–altering mistake. Surely, he cannot expect the forever–middling Mrazek to perform like a Vezina candidate the rest of the season… then guide the Maple Leafs through four playoff rounds. So, why not go back to the original plan: Deploy Campbell on a regular basis (with a night off, here and there) and allow him to play his way out of the slump. Sitting on the bench won’t accomplish that. Neither will subbing with Mrazek and crossing his fingers.
The Leafs are in no danger of missing the playoffs; nor should it be of critical importance to finish atop the Atlantic Division and face an “easier” opponent in the opening series. Unless, of course, winning just one round and preserving jobs for another year is the lone objective. Otherwise, the Leafs will not be able to avoid Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina forever… or, perhaps, Colorado, in a championship clash. They’ll need to upend all the good teams to raise the Cup for the first time since 1967. And, the Leafs willl have no chance without unwavering competence in goal to begin the playoffs. We’re entering the second week of March. It’s over to you, Sheldon.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN…
(the Leafs bought their way out of goaltending issues)?
While the Maple Leafs drafted and developed Mike Palmateer and Felix Potvin, who backstopped the club to three Stanley Cup semifinal appearances (1978–93–94), they purchased Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour as unrestricted free agents. Both moves worked very well; Joseph better than Belfour. Cujo remains the best Leafs goalie of the post–1967 era. Beginning in 1998–99, under new coach Pat Quinn, he helped the Leafs win six playoff series in four years. As a reminder, the club has one playoff triumph in the past 16 seasons. With Joseph, the Maple Leafs lost to Buffalo (1999) and Carolina (2002) in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Belfour came aboard when Joseph signed, on July 1, 2002, as a free agent with Detroit. The Eagle backstopped the Leafs to a franchise–record 16–game unbeaten streak (14–0–2 between Nov. 22–Dec. 26, 2003); to the club’s first 100–point season (2003–04) and was almost solely responsible for an opening–round playoff ouster of Ottawa in 2004 (the last–such victory for the team). He was far–less effective in consecutive playoff defeats against Philadelphia.
Neither did the Leafs make the playoffs in 2005–06, when Belfour led the club with 49 appearances.