NEW YORK — Kyle Dubas and his top two lieutenants had just stepped into the winding tunnel on the fifth floor at Madison Square Garden when the news dropped.
They didn’t even wait to leave the building before addressing a need that had become so glaring it couldn’t possibly be ignored a minute longer.
Jack Campbell is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs because the team isn’t holding a playoff spot with 28 games to play in a regular season where it’s missed out on anywhere from six to 10 points because of shallow goaltending depth.
The loss to Florida earlier this week marked the third time the Leafs had blown a multi-goal lead with backup Michael Hutchinson in net. He’s also been spotty in a couple of other relief appearances where the game shouldn’t have been considered out of reach. And then there was Wednesday’s meeting with the New York Rangers, where Hutchinson was forced to play for the injured Frederik Andersen and gave up a backbreaking goal on a night he was outplayed by rookie Igor Shesterkin during a 5-3 loss.
“The fourth goal was pretty defeating and devastating, frankly,” said Sheldon Keefe. “We just didn’t have anything from there.”
When the Leafs coach made those remarks he already knew that a trade was being finalized with the Los Angeles Kings: Campbell and gritty winger Kyle Clifford in exchange for Trevor Moore and two third-round draft picks — one of which can be upgraded to a second-rounder, pending conditions.
The key to the deal is found not just in the immediate needs it fills for Toronto or Dubas’s personal connection with both players. With the Kings retaining 50 per cent of Clifford’s expiring contract, it was a completely neutral salary-cap transaction that leaves the Leafs in prime position to make more moves before the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
This is a masterstroke given the considerable constraints under which the team is operating. In fact, were it not for a perilous salary-cap position, there’s no way Dubas would have let his team get this deep into the season before finding a suitable replacement for Hutchinson and his .886 save percentage — tied for 69th in the league.
Now, Campbell is no sure thing.
He’s sporting a .900 save percentage while playing behind a bottom-feeding Kings outfit this season, but his numbers across 58 career NHL games suggest that he’s an upgrade on Hutchinson. And there’s got to be some added comfort for both the player and team because he previously spent part of a season playing for Dubas with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Additionally, Campbell is signed through 2021-22 and can fulfill Toronto’s requirement to expose a goaltender in the June 2021 Seattle expansion draft — leaving them a little more long-term flexibility than they had before the move.
Clifford is a pending unrestricted free agent who won two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles and is known for playing an honest, heavy, black-and-blue style of game. He’s also a former teammate of Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin, who made pointed remarks about this group’s desire to want things to come easy following the loss to the Rangers.
“Sometimes when we go up we just want the easy game and it’s not supposed to be easy, it’s not going to be easy,” said Muzzin. “Just trying one-on-ones, like just easy plays. Staying to the outside, not getting to the dirty areas, not getting pucks in deep, getting on the forecheck, wanting the rush play.
“You’ve got to want to win the hard games just as much as sometimes when they do come easy.”
In Clifford, the Leafs are adding a bit more bottom-six forward depth and a lot more experience. He won’t look to do anything the easy way. And he also has a close tie to Dubas, his former agent with Uptown Sports Management.
Toronto paid a bit of a premium to make this move, but it’s the kind of trade you expect a contender to pursue. Moore was a useful fourth-liner for the Leafs but he’d arguably hit his ceiling in an organization spilling over with elite forwards and the native of Thousand Oaks, Calif., should find a much better opportunity with his hometown Kings.
They also parted with a 2019 third-rounder and a conditional 2021 third-rounder that converts to a second-rounder if Campbell wins six regular-season games or the Leafs re-sign Clifford after qualifying for the playoffs.
Missing the playoffs simply can’t be an option for a roster like this one.
The Leafs have nearly $40 million tied up in their top-four forwards and each of them is delivering individually: Auston Matthews is second in the NHL with 39 goals; Mitch Marner is producing 1.26 points per game; John Tavares is scoring at his long-established levels; and William Nylander is in the midst of a breakout campaign with 25 goals and 49 points already.
However, the team has been held back by a combination of porous defensive play, substandard goaltending and the effects of the injury bug.
Replacing Hutchinson with Campbell — at least once Andersen returns to full health — and Moore with Clifford slightly tilts the odds of qualifying for the playoffs in their favour. It should also bring a spiritual boost to a dressing room that wasn’t getting enough from the backup goaltending position, in particular.
“I thought that we need saves as a team, so we need him to be better in those spots when we have those lapses there,” Keefe said in assessing Hutchinson’s performance against the Rangers.
Dubas didn’t even have to watch the entire game before pulling the trigger on his first trade of the season.
As he and assistants Brandon Pridham and Laurence Gilman walked out of Madison Square Garden, they just had to be hoping that they didn’t wait too long to patch the leak.