Nobody expected this from Jack Campbell. When the Maple Leafs acquired him from Los Angeles in February of 2020, they did so because they needed a backup goaltender more reliable than Michael Hutchinson.
There was nothing in Campbell’s past that hinted that he would become more. He was 28 years old and had 20 NHL victories to his credit. Thirty times he had lost. Those are the types of numbers associated with a quintessential backup in the NHL.
He did fine in limited action in relief of Frederik Andersen, but won over his teammates with the personality of a big puppy. No matter what, he wags all the time. For a goalie, he is positively effervescent. This is an unusual quality for a fellow who gets bombarded with pucks for a living. There are few in his shoes – okay, skates – that are so outgoing. Take Carey Price, for example. He is a future Hall of Famer and the Montreal Canadiens’ hopes live and die with him, but over the years he has mastered the art of saying nothing even remotely interesting. His stall in the Montreal dressing room or chair at the Zoom table is where promising story ideas shrivel up and die.
By comparison, Campbell is charming and cheerful and pleasant even at the hardest times, and exuberant at the best.
There have been a lot of those days during the 2021 season. He started out as Andersen’s fill-in, replaced Andersen when he was injured, and is yet to relinquish the role. He won 17 of 22 games in the net and performed markedly better than Andersen has for a few years. One way to judge how badly a goalie is doing is by listening to their teammates. If they go on and on after games about how he has saved their butts in the past, it means things aren’t near as rosy in the present. And that’s what it has been like more often for Andersen now than ever before.
Toronto has an immensely talented team and may have reached the playoffs without Jack Campbell this year, but possibly not. He set a Maple Leafs goaltending record with 10 consecutive wins, and a league record when he won his 11th in a row to start the season.
He is poised to make his first postseason start on Thursday when the first-round series between Toronto and Montreal commences at Scotiabank Arena. The first team to win four games advances to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Maple Leafs won seven of 10 meetings between them during the pandemic-abbreviated regular season and finished atop the standings in the all-Canadian North Division. Montreal started well and went through a prolonged slump before clinching the fourth and final playoff berth in the 55th of 56 games. Edmonton and Winnipeg also made it and will play their first game on Wednesday night.
Toronto held the division lead for more than 100 days and had only a few hiccups along the way. A lot of that had to do with Campbell’s .915 save percentage and grit and heart. He battled through his own injuries, and righted the Maple Leafs at a point when they suddenly looked as if they were losing their way.
Nobody appreciates Campbell more than head coach Sheldon Keefe, who has watched him blossom in a way that is uncommon for a career stand-in. He has been so good that it would not be a surprise for the organization to cut ties with Andersen, whose long-term contract is about to expire.
“We knew Jack was an incredible teammate and knew he was a hard worker and saw that he had the ability to put together great games, consecutive wins,” Keefe said on Tuesday, an off-day for the players. “Then adversity hit. We started to lose games as a team and he put together back-to-back starts he wasn’t happy with. His ability to respond to that was the thing we found out [about him] and really liked.
“Things really kind of turned the corner for him.”
Campbell had lost three straight and the Maple Leafs had lost five in a row when they went to Winnipeg on April 22. Campbell ended up stopping 34 of 37 shots in a 5-3 victory over the Jets and won five of his final seven starts and the team regained its footing at the same time.
“He went into Winnipeg at a time when our team was reeling a little bit and really found his confidence, and our confidence as a team has really grown since then,” Keefe said. “His ability to handle that adversity head-on was a big moment for him.”
Campbell came to Toronto for a relative pittance: He and Kyle Clifford were swapped in exchange for winger Trevor Moore and two conditional third-round draft picks. Neither Moore nor Clifford would have had much impact on this year’s team, if they made it at all.
Campbell, meanwhile, is in the first year of a two-year deal worth US$3.3-million. His goaltending has gotten the team into the playoffs, and with his help the Maple Leafs may advance beyond the first round for the first time since 2004.
He is ebullient and irrepressible, and about to face his biggest test yet. So far he has high marks.
“It is another opportunity and a step for him,” Keefe says. “The stakes are higher. I think he and all of our guys recognize that you can’t do anything but look at it as another opportunity to take a big step and shine on this stage.
“The reality is that when you play for the Leafs and you play in this Canadian division, the limelight is quite bright all season long. He has shown the ability to shine within that and step up and perform at a high level.”
Nobody could have expected that from Jack Campbell.