There’s a sweet spot for new arrivals in the Toronto media market. Before they get used to the swarms of reporters, the scrutiny of every single thing they do on and off the ice, the rookies or free-agent signees or trade acquisitions sometimes greet their new surroundings with wide-eyed wonder.
Jack Campbell has that right now. Who knows if it’ll stay? It could just be the novelty, but it could also be his genuine personality. Regardless of its genesis, it sure is enjoyable to see in the short term.
A lot has happened since last Wednesday when, hours after a 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers, the Leafs decided enough was enough with their backup goaltending and acquired Campbell to take over for Michael Hutchinson. With starter Frederik Andersen nursing a neck injury, Campbell was pressed into three straight starts, including two in Toronto and one in Montreal. The contrast between the anonymity of Los Angeles and hockey’s two highest-pressure environments couldn’t have been bigger, but Campbell delivered a 2-0-1 record across three straight overtime games, compiling a .918 save percentage.
“He’s an unbelievable goalie,” said Leafs right winger Kasperi Kapanen. “He’s been playing really well. It’s not easy getting traded like that and a quick turnaround playing back-to-back games. It’s a lot of pressure playing in Toronto, and I think he’s been handling it really well.”
After the most recent game, Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes, Campbell earned first-star honors. He had to be guided to the packed post-game scrum in the Leafs’ dressing room like a senior citizen crossing the street. You could see how new the experience was for him – and how much he was appreciating it. Not that it meant the transition has been easy. But his new teammates have helped.
“It’s been incredible this first week,” Campbell said. “It’s an amazing organization, and I can’t speak enough about the character of the room. The guys are so welcoming, and I was pretty nervous going into such a solid team. They’ve done so well for so long. I just wanted to try to do the best I could to fit in, and they made it super easy. So I appreciate every single guy here and the staff and the fans as well.”
As coach Sheldon Keefe pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s been a boon for Campbell to play three games in five nights, as it’s helped him find a rhythm and feel like a part of the team right away. That won’t always be the case, however. With Andersen on the mend, Campbell will mostly start one leg of back-to-backs – the Leafs have three of those left this season – though he might get a bigger piece of the pie than Hutchinson did based on merit and the fact Toronto must keep Andersen fresh and 100 percent healthy for the stretch run. Still, for the most part, Campbell won’t be able to rely on the adrenaline of diving right into back to back to back high-pressure games. He’ll instead have to fall back on the skills that got him here in the first place.
Most of us know the Campbell redemption tale by now, but here’s the summray: He was a monster prospect, tied with Jonathan Bernier for the highest-drafted goalie (11th overall, 2010) since Carey Price, and led Team USA to world junior gold in 2010. Campbell became known as a high-profile bust, struggling to ascend in the Dallas Stars system. A trade to L.A. paired him with goalie coach Bill Ranford, and Campbell found his game as a 27-year-old in 2018-19. And this version of Campbell, now 28, has potential to give the Leafs a serious safety net down the stretch. At 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, he’s not a “small” goalie, but he’s not big by today’s standard. He makes up for that with instantly noticeable quickness and athleticism. His puckhandling stands out immediately, too. It makes sense once he reveals he played forward until he was nine or 10 and idolized Marty Turco, an absolute puckhandling wizard in net, growing up. Keefe has been impressed by Campbell’s confidence with the puck.
Campbell also brings an upbeat, rah-rah energy not typically associated with goalies. He behaves more like another skater. They tap his pads after he freezes the puck, but he taps his teammates, too. It’s a very deliberate decision.
“They always tell me, ‘Good job,’ so it’s kinda like, ‘Good job,’ you know?” Campbell said, earning a chorus of laughs. “It just makes you interact with your teammates more. Being in the net, you’re not on the bench, so you can’t really chat it up with the boys, so it’s nice to have that camaraderie on the ice.”
It seems, so far, like Campbell fits nicely into the room and is embracing the idea of playing in a big market. Fans, though, should keep expectations relatively realistic. He was phenomenal in 2018-19 but has been merely OK so far this season. A total of 48 goalies have logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5. Campbell sits 25th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes. That puts him exactly where he should be based on Toronto’s needs: below top-tier-starter grade but in a perfectly solid spot for a backup, making him a marked upgrade over Hutchinson. Interestingly, Campbell ranks 43rd in high-danger SP but 16th in medium-danger SP and 15th in low-danger SP. In other words, he isn’t going to stand on his head and steal games if opponents get high-quality chances, but he’s going to stop what he can see. That sounds like an ideal backup goalie profile. And, assuming Andersen’s health co-operates going forward, that’s all Toronto wants.
“In the last few years, he’s really come into his own,” said center and captain John Tavares. “He’s been a highly touted goalie for a long time. He’s been huge for us, and we’re trying to play well in front of him.”
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