As of late Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs were one of an increasingly small number of NHL teams without players or staff in the COVID-19 protocols. Two NHL games Tuesday had to be postponed because of the virus, and there are more postponements on the horizon. (Toronto’s opponent Tuesday, the Edmonton Oilers, had one player, Ryan McLeod, in the protocols, so the game could be played.)
Toronto’s good fortune on the COVID-19 front is a credit to the team and league officials who’ve made the game as safe as possible for NHLers and their families. That said, two years of a bubble existence is a very long time. You can see why players will eventually tire of this strain on their personal lives and opt-out until the larger public health issue is properly addressed.
But for now, the challenge for the Leafs is to rack up as many points as they can before the league’s holiday break. They’ve currently got three games scheduled before the Dec. 24-26 break – two road games, against Vancouver on Saturday and the expansion Seattle Kraken on Sunday, and then a home game when they host the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 23.
Even with injuries to some of Toronto’s key players, the Leafs are still capable of winning all three of those games. With a win over Edmonton, and two or three wins before the break, they’ll be in a comfortable playoff position in the Atlantic Division, challenging the Florida Panthers and defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning for first place. And one of their bigger issues is the contract status of one of their best performers: goaltender Jack Campbell.
Before Tuesday’s game, Campbell had put together a 14-5-2 record, a 1.99 goals-against average, and a .935 save percentage. Campbell has cooled off a little in his past few appearances, but without his consistent brilliance in net, the Leafs would be far back in the Atlantic mix, probably fighting it out with the Boston Bruins for the final playoff berth in the division.
Campbell’s prowess between the pipes has helped his individual situation. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and if the rest of this season is as good to him as the first quarter of the year has been, Campbell is going to get paid. Like, all-caps paid. There will be no shortage of teams lining up to sign Campbell.
This means GM Kyle Dubas is facing a tough decision: does he come to Campbell a.s.a.p. with a deal that works for him, if not on a high-financial number, then on one that has one more year on it than any other offer has? Or does Dubas wait out the season and keep Campbell focused on his current on-ice role? (The counter-argument here is that, by having him unsigned, the Leafs are shifting Campbell’s focus to worry about his monetary future.) There is no easy answer.
Perhaps Dubas is waiting until Campbell breaks his record for most games played in a single season (his record is 31 games, played with the L.A. Kings in 2018-19) before he comes to Campbell’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, with some starting point in negotiations. Maybe Campbell goes to market and simply sells himself to the highest bidder. That’s entirely his right. He’s 29 years old now, so this could be the last big-money contract of his career.
The pressure is off Campbell entirely. The pressure is on Leafs ownership and management to fit key cogs under their salary cap ceiling. If Campbell puts together a Vezina Trophy-winning year this year and subsequently walks off to sign with another team, Leafs fans will be apoplectic. And the longer the season goes on, the bigger the question about Campbell’s long-term status with the Leafs will grow louder.
Dubas has constructed a first-rate regular-season team, so he gets the benefit of the doubt at the moment, But losing Campbell would be a bad body blow. The Leafs need to sign him sooner than later, or watch his career continue on its upward trajectory and decreases Toronto’s ability to keep Campbell after this year. The clock is ticking…
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