Every sport loves a good fairytale, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have written a few of them this NHL season.
The best of them involves the unlikely heroics of goaltender Jack Campbell. This guy came out of nowhere to become a record-breaker and the talk of the town in Toronto for the past several weeks.
Everyone doubted him. Especially in the media. Even as his victories piled up. He’s a back-up goaltender, they said. Toronto can’t go far without a No. 1 like Frederik Andersen. Too injury prone, they argued.
Meanwhile, with Andersen on the sidelines with an injury and no time horizon for his return, Campbell has emerged from the scrap heap at age 29 to take a starring role.
No one could have seen this kind of NHL success. After all, his road to the NHL was filled with heartbreak.
A can’t-miss kid, who was drafted No. 11 by the Dallas Stars in 2010, Campbell hit a wall after being sent back to junior at age 18.
His struggles continued in the AHL, a rung below the NHL, and eventually led to a demotion to the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads, and a trade to the Los Angeles Kings.
But that’s how fairytales get made. Campbell’s journey finally took him to Toronto, when the Leafs acquired him from Los Angeles in February of 2020 — four years after playing in the ECHL.
Campbell started back-to-back games the day after he was acquired by Toronto. He won a 5-4 contest over Anaheim and then took Montreal to overtime the following night in a 2-1 loss.
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A calendar year later, Campbell kept winning while people in the media wondered when the bubble would burst. But his teammates knew better.
They loved him and his happy-go-lucky personality. They played better for him and carried him on this improbable run that went to 11. But all streaks end, and this one did too.
Campbell and the Maple Leafs lost to the Montreal Canadiens 4-2, ending Campbell’s NHL-record of 11 consecutive wins to start a season. It was his first loss since March 6, 2020.
“I just think I wanted it all too bad, and sometimes that doesn’t all work in your favor,” Campbell said. “Just let the game come to me, and when I do that, everything works out.”
But the story may not be over. He just might be the goaltender who takes this team on a Stanley Cup run. But Toronto needed assurance, and that’s why the Leafs went out and got another goaltender in David Rittich from the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline.
Goalies are mysterious creatures. Their sudden rise to success can be followed by a stunning collapse.
A case in point was the “Hamburglar,” otherwise known as Andrew Hammond, who stole victories for Ottawa in the 2014-15 season as a rookie sensation, but who never reached those heights again and has barely hung on to an NHL career (he is under contract with the Minnesota Wild).
The Leafs also traded for former Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno to add more grit to the sleek forward unit.
Toronto also acquired checking center Riley Nash from Columbus, forward Antti Suomela from San Jose and defenseman Ben Hutton from the Anaheim Ducks.
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has been regarded as a mastermind in the analytics part of the game, and in the past favored he has favored speed and skill over size and grit.
Skill may have worked out well during the regular season, but it was not a good formula for playoff success. Dubas saw how the Tampa Bay Lightning added grit at last year’s deadline, and went on a run to the Stanley Cup and he has taken a page out of that script.
Earlier in the season, Dubas went against type by acquiring old dog Joe Thornton at a bargain-basement price, along with combative Wayne Simmonds and re-signed Jason Spezza, who had been in the doghouse of former coach Mike Babcock.
But Foligno could be the key piece down the stretch. He’s a disruptive force. That was evident last season when Foligno scored three points in the best-of-five play-in round against Toronto, which Columbus won in five games.
“The thing that I really felt that we needed from the beginning,” Dubas explained, “was to try to find a player that can play up and down our lineup, is a character guy of competitiveness and defensive responsibility, but also had the skill and ability to play with any of our top three lines. That was accomplished with Nick.”
It’s a fact that no other North American professional league undergoes a stylistic change from the regular season to the playoffs like the NHL.
You can get fancy during the regular season, but it’s the gritty goals and one-on-one puck battles that count for more in the playoffs.
The Leafs have lots of fancy players. Auston Matthews is one of them. But even the former No. 1 overall draft pick has become more of a two-way player in the last year. Of course, his primary asset is his shooting.
Matthews leads the league in goals with 32 and is expected to win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer for the first time.
Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004 and a Stanley Cup since 1967. This year, the door seems to have opened wider than ever.
The Leafs are the best team in the North Division and one of the top teams in the entire league, based on their record. The fact that Toronto won’t have to face Boston or Tampa in the first round of the playoffs is a blessing not lost on anyone in Canada.
Due to the pandemic and realigned divisions, a team from the North Division is guaranteed a spot in the semifinals this season. Toronto is the most likely of the Canadian teams to advance that far.
Foligno may be the key piece to get the Maple Leafs there. He could be part of a new fairytale in Toronto. His father, Mike, skated parts of four seasons with Toronto and helped the Leafs advance to the 1993 conference finals.
Nick Foligno was only 5 years old at the time, but he remembers the spring of 1993 very well.
“I remember the passion of the fans and how excited my dad was,” Foligno said. “After beating St. Louis (in the division final), we got to walk the streets home, and that parade atmosphere, that kind of stuck with me.
“It’s something my dad talks about to this day and it’s ingrained into that city. I’m looking forward to going on another one and being the next Foligno to do so.”