TORONTO – With every win, every shutout, and every round of “Soooooup!” chants that ring throughout Scotiabank Arena, the leverage shifts Jack Campbell’s way.
No wonder Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs have, as Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported Tuesday, begun contract extension negotiations with their No. 1 goaltender and most critical pending unrestricted free agent.
Building upon his NHL-record-breaking 11-0 start out of the gate last season, Campbell has looked even sharper and more consistent early in this one, despite only recently receiving the run support a Maple Leafs netminder should come to expect.
By shutting out a shorthanded Vegas Golden Knights squad Tuesday, Campbell’s record improved to 4-2-1, his save percentage to .929, and his goals-against average to 1.99.
No pending UFA goalie with at least three appearances has a better GAA. And of that group, only Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen, 33, has more wins.
Peering ahead to 2022’s UFA goalie carousel, the late-blooming Campbell’s sharp performance has thrust the 29-year-old into a conversation among Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper, 32, and Columbus’s Joonas Korpisalo, 28, as the most valuable members of that class. The rest are decent backup options (Jaroslav Halak, Martin Jones), unproven commodities (Anton Forsberg, Ville Husso) or ageing champs (Marc-Andre Fleury, Braden Holtby).
Campbell is one of the rare options whose stock is on the rise. Heck, it’s not a stretch that Team USA might need to put the Michigan native on its radar for one of its three Olympic slots.
Asked if Kypreos’s report was accurate — if Dubas and agent Kurt Overhardt, had opened talks — Campbell neither confirmed nor denied.
“I'm not really sure. I’m just focused on the game,” Campbell replied. “That's where my focus is at.”
OK. But what would a long-term commitment to the Maple Leafs mean to you?
“I truly love it here,” Campbell beamed.
“The guys have taken me in like I've been here my whole career. Special group. Special city. The fans are incredible. And any time they embrace me the way they have, it means a lot to me, and there’s nothing more I’d love than to stay here. I guess, ultimately, all we can do — myself included — is win hockey games.”
After Dubas announced the signing of Morgan Rielly to an eight-year, $60-million extension Friday, the executive was explicit in saying that his next priority was to secure a goaltender to partner with Petr Mrazek, who’s under contract for two more seasons beyond this one at a $3.8 million AAV.
Coach Sheldon Keefe said “it was never a question” that Campbell — despite making less and having less security than Mrazek — would be his opening-night starter, and Mrazek’s pulling a groin just two periods into his Leafs tenure has underscored the value of crease depth to an organization that has no blue-chip goalie prospects coming.
“The performance and the play in the net is one thing,” Keefe said, “but I'm watching him around the building and watching his interactions and watching how he handles the ups and downs that we've gone through here in the early going.
“And he hasn't changed one bit. So, he's handled it well. He continues to work, continues to ask questions and wants information, whether it's from goaltending coach Steve Briere or the rest of our coaching staff. He's engaged in everything that we're doing. His personality has remained the same. That's the stuff I'm most concerned about — and he's been really good there.”
Here’s the catch, because there is always a catch in a salary cap world.
Campbell is a 2010 first-round pick whose career earnings fall under $4.2 million. This summer will be his chance to secure the bag and set himself up for all the Red Lobster he can eat.
The love is mutual, but with the Maple Leafs only holding roughly $7.2 million to fill out their 2022-23 roster (and RFAs Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren needing raises too), keeping Campbell’s number low is imperative.
Coincidentally, Overhardt would be wise to use Calvin Petersen’s recent three-year, $15-million deal with the L.A. Kings as a Campbell comparable. (L.A. traded Campbell to Toronto, in part, because it saw Petersen as Jonathan Quick’s better successor.)
The tighter Dubas can keep Campbell in Mrazek’s price range, the better.
Toronto might stretch and spend nearly $8 million on its crease, but if Campbell drives for $5 million or more on an AAV… well, that might cost another Leaf his job.
Related: Elliotte Friedman reports that Dubas is now shopping a defenceman who plays the right side.
Yes, November may seem early to some fans to begin planning the Maple Leafs’ goaltending pay scale for 2022 and on.
But the way Campbell is playing, it’s difficult to blame Dubas for trying to buy low now.