Following their ugly collapse to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs did their best to add depth to their group of forwards in advance of the 2021-22 regular season, offering more opportunity than money to experienced hands Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunton, Ondrej Kase, David Kãmpf, and Kurtis Gabriel. That said, the biggest issue the Leafs will be dealing with this season isn’t on forward, or even on defense, where the future of veteran blueliner Morgan Rielly will hover over the team until he’s either re-signed (before he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year), traded, or allowed to walk away as a UFA next summer. No, the real issue is one that a number of NHL teams will face this year: how well their goaltending holds up over the course of 82 games.
As last season unfolded, it became clearer and clearer longtime No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen was not going to be re-signed this off-season, and he bolted as a UFA to the Carolina Hurricanes, at a $500,000 annual discount from the $5-million he earned in each of his past five seasons as a Leaf. Andersen lost his starter’s job as a Leaf when he was injured, as backup Jack Campbell basically stole the role with some of the best play of his career. And with the Leafs facing a salary-cap crunch this coming year, Campbell’s $1.65-million salary for the 21-22 season made him all the more attractive to Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as the answer in net.
But that didn’t mean the Buds were about to push all their chips behind Campbell in the post-Andersen era. Given they had limited cap space, it would’ve been easy for Dubas and team brass to wholeheartedly endorse Campbell as their starter, and add a backup on a league-minimum (or rookie-contract-signed) player as Campbell’s understudy. However, with Campbell’s spotty injury history – one that has limited him to a career-high of just 31 games played in a single season – it didn’t make sense for Toronto to go on the cheap to sign a tandem partner for the 29-year-old. Instead, the Buds went to the UFA market to buttress their back end, signing former Hurricanes No. 1 netminder Petr Mrazek to a three-year, $11.4-million pact.
Mrazek is the same age as Campbell, but their careers drastically differ in many regards. Mrazek’s first NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings, employed him for 50 and 54 regular season games in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons respectively, and he responded by posting his best save percentage (while playing in more than 12 games in a year) of .921 in 2015-16. Since then – and since he relocated to Carolina, where he spent the past three years – Mrazek has dealt with injury issues, but has otherwise been solid. He now has his immediate future finalized, but in Toronto, he will have to play under a microscope he’s never before had to play under. One or two bad games in a row from him, and he’ll be faced with a phalanx of TV cameras and microphones inquiring as to what his major malfunction is. But if he can give the Leafs 40 games of above-average play, he’ll almost assuredly have the offensive support to keep him on the winning side of the ledger.
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Still, you have to imagine, when Campbell becomes a UFA at the conclusion of this coming year, he’ll be looking for a raise to at least the level Mrazek got from Toronto this summer. If he’s played well-enough to earn it, the salary cap-challenged Leafs will have difficulty matching it or giving him more money than Mrazek starting next year, and if Mrazek doesn’t play well, Toronto will have difficulty unloading the final two years of his contract without retaining some of his salary or finding a taker for the full remainder of monies owed to him.
If Toronto winds up somehow keeping both Mrazek and Campbell beyond 2021-22, it easily could be looking at more than $8 million a year for their goaltending, which at first glance appears too rich for a team that already will struggle to keep Rielly around. So it’s easy to project how this all could get gummed up under the right/wrong situation. If Campbell plays as well as he did for Toronto in 22 regular season games last year, and nearly doubles the number of games he plays, Dubas will find himself with some difficult decisions to make. If he lets Campbell walk without any assets coming back in return, the Leafs’ fanbase will revolt. And hockey gods-forbid that both Campbell and Mrazek have sub-par years; in that case, Toronto will be stuck with Mrazek’s contract, and Campbell will likely be moving on to another franchise.
See how easily this can go sideways for the Buds? As it stands, they’re far from the only NHL team that’s looking for two goalies to shoulder the weight of pressure and expectation. Indeed, many franchises this summer changed their goaltending outlook. The Leafs and Canes basically swapped goalies, and we’ll see if Andersen can post impressive numbers on what should be a terrific Carolina squad. Leafs fans will take note of that, too – especially if Campbell and Mrazek fail to gel as a duo and give Toronto a chance to win.
The Leafs’ optimism in the Campbell-Mrazek tandem may prove to be well-founded. If they’re depending on both goalies to split the load and figure each player may perform better with only 40-odd games under their belts this year, that may well come to pass. But anyone who’s watched NHL goalies on a macro level knows the best-laid plans of mice and goalie-men often go awry. And with immense pressure on Toronto to improve their lot after a letdown in 2021, the way the Leafs’ goalies play this year may chart a new course for the franchise for many seasons to come.