As Mrazek nears return, how will Maple Leafs manage goalies’ workload?

Auston Matthews scored a hat trick as the Toronto Maple Leafs routed the Colorado Avalanche 8-3.

Goaltending has been one of the biggest stories around the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, and thanks to the remarkable play of Jack Campbell, it’s also been one of the best.

Despite well-designed plans for a goalie tandem in Toronto, it’s been Campbell playing the lead role while partner Petr Mrazek deals with a groin injury.

Now, with the Maple Leafs enjoying one of their most successful streaks in recent memory and Mrazek nearing his return, head coach Sheldon Keefe shed some light on how the team plans to bring Mrazek back into the mix.

“He’s gonna go over to the Marlies and really work his way back, both physically and — probably more importantly — mentally,” Keefe said of Mrazek during Real Kyper & Bourne Thursday afternoon. The coach stressed the importance of taking things one day at a time — starting with a stint in the AHL with the Marlies.

After signing a three-year pact with the Maple Leafs over the off-season, Mrazek’s Toronto tenure got off to a tough start. He sustained a groin injury two periods into his Maple Leafs debut Oct. 14 against the Ottawa Senators, and after being sidelined two weeks, aggravated the injury in his return Oct. 30 against the Detroit Red Wings. That setback ruled him out for the whole month of November.

Over the course of five periods of play in just two games in blue and white, Mrazek registered a 4.20 goals-against average and .877 save percentage — a far cry from the strong numbers he posted with the Carolina Hurricanes the past three years.

Mrazek practised with the NHL club Tuesday and also joined his teammates during their recent road trip to get him reintegrated with the NHL pace.

“We remain committed here to just doing what’s right for Petr, to take it slowly and build himself back up from a conditioning standpoint and, as I said, the mental hurdles you’ve got to go through to get yourself back up to speed and trusting your body and all of that,” said Keefe.

Toronto’s ability to take a really patient approach to Mrazek’s recovery is, of course, made all the easier thanks to the tremendous performance of Campbell as the team’s de facto No. 1 netminder through two months of the season. Campbell, who worked his way into the starter’s seat with a successful stint last season while former teammate Frederik Andersen dealt with injuries, has started 18 of the Maple Leafs’ 24 games this season and won 13 of them. His 1.72 goals-against average and .943 save percentage are not only personal bests but league-best, too, as the team’s fall MVP puts in an early Vezina Trophy bid.

“Certainly, Jack has been outstanding for us, and of course a major reason why our team has been able to find success,” said Keefe.

Clearly, Campbell has thrived with a busy workload, but Keefe cautioned that balance will be key moving forward.

“We do have to manage his workload and look at the big picture and start to forecast about where we’re at here and how this might play out over the course of the season — and when it’s all said and done, whether we’re gonna be happy with how much we’ve had to rely on Jack. So, we want to be mindful of that,” he said. “Of course, it becomes very difficult to do because he’s in such a real rhythm here and he’s played so well and for the first time he’s been the No. 1 goaltender and going pretty much every day. His body’s been holding up well, his energy’s been good, and he’s of course played very well so we’re gonna have to really look at that and manage it every day.”

Rookie Joseph Woll has also gotten into the mix with his first career NHL starts, his trio of wins in November helping propel Toronto to a 12-2 record for the month.

Overall, indicated Keefe, the game plan remains unchanged from the beginning of the season in terms of the tandem approach.

“We felt really good about having two goalies coming into this and to be able to manage all of that workload well. And circumstances have changed a little bit here, but I think ultimately we’d like to shuttle back into that,” he said.

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