There’s never a dull moment in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ crease.
The Maple Leafs encountered yet another detour along their goaltending journey this season, breaking the news on Thursday morning that defacto starter Jack Campbell will miss at least the next two weeks with a rib injury.
That leaves Petr Mrazek as Toronto’s lone remaining hope in net, with rookie Erik Kallgren, who was recalled from the Toronto Marlies on Thursday morning on an emergency basis, backstopping him for the time being.
Mrazek now faces an opportunity to grab the crease and never give it back.
The 30-year-old signed with the Maple Leafs in July to serve as part of a tandem with Campbell this season and beyond, with Mrazek entering the fold as the highest-paid and longest-tenured goaltender on Toronto’s roster.
The Leafs, in the middle of their contention window, opened their offseason by locking him in for three years at nearly $4 million per season. That’s not the kind of commitment a team just willingly hands out without a substantial amount of confidence in their investment.
Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe, and the Maple Leafs on the whole clearly believe in Mrazek.
Now, Mrazek has the opportunity to reward them.
“This situation right here is exactly why you go out and sign someone like Petr to partner with Jack,” explained Keefe after the Leafs’ team skate on Thursday morning.
“So, here we are.”
Mrazek won’t exactly have a lot of time to acclimate to being his team’s goaltending backbone, though.
The Maple Leafs currently find themselves only a third of the way through one of the busiest months in franchise history, with 10 games in 21 days left to play in March alone. While no back-to-backs are on the docket to otherwise force the coaching staff into splitting starts, it would nevertheless be a lot to ask for Mrazek to play every other day from here on out. Even if Campbell’s recovery ends up mirroring his two-week prognosis, that would still leave a stretch of six games in 13 nights for Mrazek to handle — which, given Mrazek’s pronounced injury history, might end up making this problem worse.
That leaves two paths forward: rolling with Kallgren as the B to Mrazek’s A for the foreseeable future and praying to whichever deity will listen that he immediately adjusts to the NHL game, or finding a veteran backup on the trade market.
To be fair, Kallgren has impressed in his first full North American season prior to today’s call-up. The 25-year-old owns a 15-8-1 record with Toronto’s AHL affiliate to go with a .904 save percentage; a number deflated somewhat by a recent rough stretch in an otherwise promising campaign.
There seems to be a lot of that going around the organization lately.
“There’s always ups and downs,” Marlies coach Greg Moore said of Kallgren last week.
“I wouldn’t even say this is a ‘down’ as it is just him feeling the momentum swings in the season. We’re still really happy with the things he’s working through and how much he’s developing as a goalie.”
Kallgren might very well be earning the praise of his coaches down on the farm, and that’s a fantastic development for the organization as it sorts out its long-term goaltending blueprint, but the fact remains that the Maple Leafs almost certainly did not envision him touching NHL ice until at least next season.
Keep in mind, Kallgren has played just 31 total games of professional hockey in North America as of today, 26 of which coming this season, and the question remains as to whether it would be at all fair to thrust him into a heated divisional race on a contending team while he’s still finding his bearings.
Crazier things have happened, of course. Andrew Hammond has the lifetime McDonald’s gold card to prove it. But if Kallgren falters, or if Campbell’s injury proves worse than initially diagnosed, or even if Mrazek gets hurt himself, it might be a stretch to pin your hopes on him.
So, the Maple Leafs could turn to the trade market, putting them in the position to likely spend draft capital on a short-term depth goaltender for the second consecutive season.
That, as the kids might say, is not ideal.
Still, there are a few attractive options out there that may catch the eye.
Marc-Andre Fleury is both too expensive from a cash and asset cost standpoint to acquire and has reportedly made it known that he doesn’t want to get dealt. So, he’s a no-go.
Anton Forsberg, however, is a more realistic option and is having himself a tremendous season with the Ottawa Senators after bouncing around the waiver wire in 2021, rocking a .921 save percentage in 27 games that would otherwise give him the team lead in that category if he came to Toronto.
The Senators have never shied away from doing business with their divisional rival in the past, either, becoming trade partners with the Leafs on both the Dion Phaneuf and Nikita Zaitsev blockbusters, and would likely command a third or second-round pick for Forsberg’s services.
Is Dubas comfortable with depleting an already thin cupboard of draft picks for someone who may not even play 20 games in a Leafs sweater? That remains to be seen.
Veterans Jaroslav Halak and Semyon Varlamov are decent backup plans in the event the Maple Leafs opt to go down this road, too. Each player brings with him years of experience as both a starter and backup and might be enticed at the thought of joining a contender to finish out their careers.
On the flip side, though, both Halak and Varlamov have modified no-move clauses in their contracts and could be less inclined to waive for a team they may ultimately end up watching from the press box by the end of the month.
No matter how you slice it, the short-term outlook of the Leafs falls on the shoulders of Mrazek.
The next 14 days could more or less define his standing within the Leafs organization, solidifying him as the hot-hand starter heading into the playoffs on a fairly reasonable contract, or confirming the early-season rumblings that suggested management may opt to trade him in the offseason.
Buckle up, folks. We’re about to learn a whole lot in a very short amount of time.