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Civil Discourse: The Maple Leafs’ new goaltending tandem

Welcome to Civil Discourse, a new article series where two TLN writers discuss a topic of interest rationally without resorting to personal insults. So basically the anti-Twitter.

Mark Norman

I know we’re here to talk about the Leafs goaltending going into this season, but I just wanted to briefly look back on Jack Campbell’s play last season. What stood out to you about Jack’s 2020-21 season?

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Jori Negin-Shecter

I’m no technical goalie expert but Campbell’s emergence last year was really remarkable to watch from afar. His demeanour in the net was just so different from what Frederik Andersen had brought since he started struggling part way through the 19-20 season. Just the utmost composure even in the highest intensity spots. A fantastic playoff run. Campbell really looked the part of a starter in the National Hockey League. The only thing is that by going out and signing Petr Mrazek, Kyle Dubas clearly doesn’t seem to believe that statement.

Mark

I don’t seem to remember much in the way of bad goals being scored against Campbell last season. Every goalie obviously has goals they’d like back, such as Gallagher’s far-out wrister in Game 7, but overall I felt Campbell was a steady, reliable presence in net. He gave me confidence that he would stop the shots he was supposed to save, and maybe some that he wasn’t. That is a feeling Andersen used to give me, but just not over these last two seasons.

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The Mrazek acquisition, I feel, could be taken a few ways. Perhaps, as you said, Dubas is a bit reluctant to put all of his eggs in the “Jack Campbell is an indisputable NHL starter” basket. I personally think it was smart of Dubas to hedge things and bring in a second capable goaltender so we’re putting a guy between the pipes in all 82 games who can be relied on. I don’t necessarily take it as an indictment of Campbell’s abilities.

What do you think the split in games should be next season, and what do you think it will be?

Jori

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I think the hope should be that the Leafs can split it almost 50/50, and that the team can ride the hot hand whenever need be. As far as what it will be, I think the real question mark that we’ve kind of danced around is that both of these goalies have a history of battling injuries. That could make things hairy, and is something that definitely sits in the back of your mind. We’re just a pulled groin and a bum knee away from starting goaltender Michael Hutchinson, which would be disastrous. Does the injury history of these two tenders give you some pause?

Mark

The thought of Michael Hutchinson being two stopped hearts away from the presidency is one that fuels my nightmares. Absolutely, the injury issues give me anxiety, especially because both goalies have a history of lower body injuries. I guess we just need to hope that they both don’t get injured simultaneously? Oh who are we kidding? It’s the Leafs: that will totally happen.

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One thing I think that’s worth mentioning about Mrazek’s injury issues last season is that while he missed most of the season, the lion’s share of that time missed was a thumb injury that required surgery. He only missed 8 games with his lower body injury.

I think there’s arguments to be made for the various potential approaches to this tandem arrangement. We’ve seen teams employ strict alternating starts, and others implement a meritocracy (win and you’re in). I’m with you: I’d lean more towards riding the hot hand. A little professional competition couldn’t hurt, and the good thing is both goaltenders are used to tandem life.

Coming into the off-season was Mrazek near the top of your goaltending wish list? What do you think of the signing and having him man our crease for the next 3 seasons?

Jori

The Leafs were linked to a lot of goalies in the lead up to free agency and the mix was a little bit suspect. Linus Ullmark was linked by DFO’s own Frank Seravalli but it always felt like he was going to get way more money than he was worth (which definitely ended up being the case). Others like the perpetually terrible Martin Jones were thrown out there, so it seems like Dubas had plenty of irons on the fire. Considering those names, locking in Mrazek is probably the smartest move the team could’ve made considering the price tag. It might be a slight overpayment, and the term might be a hair longer than ideal, but it’s certainly nothing outlandish and isn’t immovable.

I think what concerns me more is that Mrazek’s contract is going to be at least a baseline for Campbell. A Campbell Mrazek tandem at 5.5 is very attractive. I don’t know if you can say the same if that tandem is costing you closer to 8.5/9 million.

Mark

My favourite goaltending metric is Evolving-Hockey.com’s GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expectation) reflected as a per-60 rate, which indicates the number of goals saved in a 60-min timeframe above what is to be expected based on shot location and shot type. Of all goaltenders to face a minimum of 250 shot attempts, Mrazek posted the highest GSAx/60 this season (small sample size alert: 12 GP) and the fourth-highest for the last two seasons combined. Some of this may be driven by Carolina’s excellent shot suppression and shot share metrics (Alex Nedeljkovic had similar numbers) but the Leafs were not slouches in this area last season either. For me, the best options in free agency to form a tandem with Jack Campbell were Mrazek and Chris Driedger, and Mrazek had a slight edge due to a longer track record. So I’m happy with the move.

One thing I have not seen talked about that much is that by bringing in Mrazek to platoon with Campbell, it suppresses Campbell’s body of work and thus his ask when his next contract is up. The tandem situation will keep Campbell to around 35-45 games this season, barring injuries. This doesn’t give him much of a leg to stand on in terms of being paid like a bonafide #1. My guess is he comes in right around what Mrazek is being paid on a 2-3 year deal, bringing our goaltending costs to around $7.5-8.0M. We can work with that.

Let’s finish this off with some predictions. How do you see next season going between the pipes? Will a goaltending controversy emerge or will the Leafs get their most reliable goaltending of the Auston Matthews Era? Which goaltender ends up with the higher save percentage? Who starts Game 1 of the playoffs next season? No prediction is too bold.

Jori

So many question marks! I guess it wouldn’t truly be “Maple Leafs goaltending” if there weren’t about a dozen questions about its status at any given moment. Whether it’s warranted or not, there will be a goaltending controversy at some point, and you can take that right to the bank. It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, surely somewhere out there someone will be unhappy with how the goaltending split is being handled. When it comes to the Buds, fans can barely agree on if the sky is blue with this hockey team.

As far as the better bet to outshine the other, my money is on Campbell out of the gate, but it doesn’t feel out of the realm of possibilities for Mrazek to be leading the charge by the Christmas break with Campbell regressing back to a low .910’s goaltender. The position is just so unbelievably volatile that almost anything could happen. There’s even a realm of possibilities where neither goalie is a reliable starter by the Trade Deadline and the team has gone out and found a rental to replace an underperforming tandem. The uncertainty of a pairing like this is going to make for some juicy content, to say the least, and while I’m comfortable with where Kyle Dubas has positioned the team right now, perhaps it’ll be worthwhile to revisit the question in another 4 months as the season kicks into high gear.

Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic though. As of today, do you see Campbell or Mrazek as a more likely Game 1 starter?

Mark

My money is on Campbell to lead the way as well, but I fully expect Mrazek to make this a competition. It wouldn’t surprise me to see both goaltenders finish with 0.920+ save percentages, especially considering how good the Leafs were at shot suppression this season (5th-best in Shots Against-per-60 and 10th-best in Corsi Against-per-60 at 5v5 per Evolving-Hockey). That should lead to good goaltending results, unless you’re Frederik Andersen, who somehow got worse with more help?

The one thing that may make things difficult for Mrazek is the transition to a new team with new teammates and new systems. It’s not uncommon for goaltenders who change teams to initially struggle as they feel out their new digs. The good news is that Carolina and Toronto employ similar systems geared around puck possession and quick transitions up ice, so perhaps this won’t be as much of a learning curve for Petr.

Considering how well he played in the playoffs and how he saved the Leafs from being torpedoed by Andersen’s struggles in the regular season, I’d be surprised if Campbell wasn’t our starter for the playoffs next year. I guess that’s why they play the games, right? It’s Campbell’s gig to lose. But for the Leafs’ sake, I hope Mrazek gives him a run for his money.