Even though we Chicagoans don’t get a spring — it’s winter until one day somewhere in May when it’s just suddenly summer and we’re all instantly drunk outside — that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize the signs of spring approaching elsewhere. Sure, we’ve been robbed of one of them in spring training. But the desperate wailing of baseball fans being deprived of their joy certainly lets us know where we are on the calendar. The later sunsets, the slightly rising temps, the long lines at car washes all let us know that the darkness may subside soon.
Oh, and the Boston Bruins gaining ground quickly on the Toronto Maple Leafs while the latter is going through a goalie crisis as their fanbase starts running around the city with scissors.
You may look at the Leafs having won three of their last five, having only lost the last two, and think that things aren’t so bad. And perhaps they’re not. But then, you don’t know how things work in the big T.O. Any blip at this time of year causes tremors in Ontario, especially if it portends to yet another first-round exit for the Leafs.
Which is on the horizon, because Toronto is unlikely to flag down the Panthers in first. Which means leading off the playoffs with the Lightning, or maybe the Bruins again which will cause all sorts of shaking and rocking in a dark room, or perhaps the Panthers themselves, or maybe even the Canes. All of which would be a testing series at best, sure heartache at worst.
And what’s really getting the teeth chattering in the nation’s hockey capital is that the Leafs goaltending has been woeful for a couple of months now. There is no greater house of cards than the Leafs have been, with this dizzying array of offensive talent and scoring that has depended on various goofi and giblets they’ve installed between the posts. Whether it was a collection of Freddie Andersen meltdowns in Game 7s in Boston or Jack Campbell turning into Jack Campbell against the Habs last year, the method of defeat has been chillingly familiar for Leafs fans, hilariously so for everyone else.
Which is probably what has Leafs fans and media leaving their senses, the anticipation that they’ll have to go through this all again. Since the turn of the year, the Leafs have the worst save-percentage (.881) at even-strength in the league. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Leafs have let in 25 more goals in 2022 than their expected goals against, which means every time they’ve left the dressing room they’re already down 1-0. The fact that they’ve managed a 15-8-2 record in that time is something of a minor miracle.
It’s been especially ugly of late. The Leafs gave up six goals last night to the Vancouver Canucks. The game before that it was five to the Sabres, both on home ice. There was also a seven-spot given up to the Red Wings, though the Leafs scored 10 themselves that night to cancel it out. They gave up six to the Blues and five to the Canadiens in losses in recent weeks.
Campbell has been the leaking sore-spot. His save-percentage in 2022 is .882. His performances at the end of February were so ass-tastic that he was given a full week off to try and collect himself. He responded with a full-body dry heave against Vancouver. And the Leafs might not have any time to figure out something else.
Backup Petr Mrazek hasn’t been any better, with an .887 save-percentage in February while Campbell took his hiatus. And much like Campbell, Mrazek has a terminal case of being Petr Mrazek.
And the Leafs are not hanging their goalies out to dry. Since January 1st, they’re 9th and 11th in expected goals against and Corsi against (attempts at net). Even just middling goaltending would have been worth a few more wins given what the Leafs have allowed to be flung at their net. But even the merest suggestion of a shot is finding twine.
The real cock-up was thinking Campbell was up for this, what the Leafs are built for everywhere else, in the first place. Before last season, Campbell had only produced two decent seasons as a backup to Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles for irrelevant Kings teams. Once again, any team that used last season as a viable sample for evaluation and projection ended up with a handful of themselves. Yes, Campbell put up great numbers in half a season as the Leafs starter last year. Those were in circumstances never to be repeated, and the Leafs were in a division with a giant sack of shit. Campbell never had to face a good team. And even that didn’t stop him and the Leafs from coughing up their first round series to one of those bad teams, Montreal.
Of course, it’s not a mystery why. The Leafs can’t afford anything else. They have three $10 million-plus forwards and are capped out. That lack of available cash has been blamed for their veteran and slow bottom six in past years, which has been exposed by deeper teams. But the Leafs continue to be under the assumption they can just put anyone in goal and it’ll work out.
And this might be what they have to go with. There was a report last night that Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t want to be traded again, though it was from Steve Simmons in Toronto so you’ll need an entire bag of salt with that. To get Fleury in, if Fleury wanted to go, the Leafs would have to do some serious salary culling. What else is out there? Martin Jones? Braden Holtby?
The Leafs are going to see a real-ass team come the first round. All of those teams have a real-ass goalie. The Leafs will once again answer with a wavy-armed inflatable man. We know this story.