The Toronto Maple Leafs have won 15 of their past 17 games. Let that sink in for a minute. That’s basically 20 percent of their season. And they’ve come out of it with 30 points in that span. The only way they could’ve been better would be if they were perfect, and we know no NHL team is perfect.
But they can be consistently great, and they’re playing some of the best hockey the Maple Leafs have played in years. They’re poised, confident, and focused on turning around Toronto’s fortunes and really making noise in the playoffs. And if they get goalie Petr Mrazek back from injury sometime soon, the Leafs could continue this hot streak for some time to come.
Mrazek was assigned Friday to the American League Toronto Marlies on a conditioning loan. The veteran netminder has appeared in only two games this season, going 1-1-0 with a .877 save percentage and a 4.20 goals-against average. When Leafs GM Kyle Dubas signed Mrazek to a three-year, $11.4 million contract last summer, he surely was expecting better individual numbers than that. And given Mrazek’s career numbers, that was a fair assumption for Dubas to make. Mrazek has had only one sub-.900 SP in his previous seven NHL seasons, and that .891 SP was only for 17 games with Philadelphia. But his career-best SP was with Carolina last season, when he put up a .923 mark. On a good team, Mrazek can be a solid contributor, and for the most part this season, the Leafs have been a very good team.
Yes, it’s true Mrazek now has a little competition for playing time – but this isn’t in reference to No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell, who has done everything the team has asked, and more. This is about rookie Joseph Woll, who currently has a 3-0-0 record along with a 1.67 goals-against average, one shutout, and a .939 SP. The 23-year-old Woll’s win streak has come with victories over lesser lights, Including Buffalo, the New York Islanders, and San Jose. But he gave the Leafs precisely what they need – a chance to win any game he’s in.
Unfortunately for Woll, the Leafs’ contract with Mrazek basically means there will be next to no chance for him to follow up on it at the NHL level this season. Dubas isn’t about to bury Mrazek’s contract in the AHL. Toronto needs him to come back and give Campbell a little breathing room.
It’s not always fun to be a Leafs’ goaltender. The pressure is tremendous, and the pitfalls are many. But if you can stay Zen the way Campbell stays Zen, you can carve out an important place for yourself in Toronto sports history. The Leafs have had Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, Frederik Andersen, and many more marquee goalies in their employ, but they’ve rarely had goalies steal games for them. At least, when the games mattered most.
That’s the opportunity Campbell has, and it goes for Mrazek as well. If Mrazek thrives, the Leafs can cut down on Campbell’s action and have him fresher come playoff time. But if Mrazek falters, Toronto will have somewhat of a conundrum on its hands. This is a crossroads-type season for the Buds, and they can’t afford to watch Mrazek try and get comfortable. Don’t be surprised to see Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe ride Campbell even harder in the event Mrazek doesn’t perform well. They can’t really give up on Mrazek with all this time left on his contract, and going back to Woll rather than give Mrazek another shot, might really disillusion Mrazek. You don’t want bad energy in the dressing room.
Soon, Mrazek’s conditioning stint will be over, and it will be time for the Leafs to recall him and, eventually, start using him in games. To keep pace in the Atlantic Division, Toronto is going to need Mrazek to rebound as well as the Leafs did after their slow start to the season.
Winning 15 of 17 gives the Leafs a little extra runway to land their plane on this year. But don’t kid yourself – the pressure on Mrazek will be there as soon as he’s ready to make his NHL return. Win, and he starts really challenging Campbell for playing time; Lose, and he’ll be nailed to the bench for a good while.
It’s now up to Mrazek, and his Leafs’ teammates, to prove he can still positively impact games. The competitive bar has been set high by Campbell, but Mrazek may yet clear it. The pressure is squarely on Mrazek, and it will be intriguing to see how he handles it.
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