EDMONTON — If there was ever any doubt about how important Jack Campbell is to the Toronto Maple Leafs, all you had to do is watch the seconds following the final horn when his teammates mobbed him jubilation.
“Since he’s come here, he’s been absolutely tremendous,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “The attitude he brings every day, the work ethic and practice is second to none.”
Campbell made 30 saves and became the first goaltender on his team to post a shutout this season as the Toronto Maple Leafs blanked the Edmonton Oilers 4-0 at Rogers Place on Saturday night.
The 29-year-old made his first start since Jan. 24, when he suffered a leg injury late in the third period of the team’s 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames.
“Coming off injury and coming in and playing a game like that is impressive,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin, who also returned to action after missing the last two games with a bone fracture in his face.
The Maple Leafs struggled in the early part of the game with some turnovers in their own zone leading to high-quality scoring chances for the Oilers.
But Campbell rose to the occasion, denying the high-octane offensive duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“He looked really confident out there,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We had some real tough turnovers there from our breakouts.”
William Nylander opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 14:37. Mitch Marner scored 1:13 later from Tavares and Joe Thornton, a new first-line created out of necessity with Auston Matthews out with a wrist injury.
Once the Maple Leafs held the lead, they clamped down on the Oilers. Jason Spezza showed that his shot hasn’t aged, beating Oilers goaltender Mike Smith with a dazzling fake before going top shelf at 11:15 of the second period.
Zach Hyman rounded out the scoring at 13:34 of the third period. Hyman’s line, consisting of Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev, was perhaps the best defensive forward trio on the ice. Their line played more than any other with Engvall logging a career-high 18:13 of ice time.
“The boys played amazing tonight,” Campbell said. “The way our D were down but our forwards were working to come back. We wanted to get pucks deep and not get above those guys.”
Campbell improved to 3-0-0 this season and didn’t look like a goaltender recovering from any injury rust. Rebounds were nearly non-existent and he punched out his glove with confidence to keep second chances in front of him at a minimum.
His start last month was supposed to mark the first change of goalie implementation under starter Frederik Andersen. With a truncated 56-game season, Campbell was to see a higher proportion of starts than any other backup throughout the last five seasons.
But the injury last month put a halt to those plans. Goaltender Aaron Dell was supposed to Toronto’s insurance policy, but he was claimed off waivers five days before Campbell’s untimely injury.
Michael Hutchinson, who struggled mightily with the Leafs last season, suddenly found himself back in the No. 2 spot. The Leafs were forced to revert to the old way by riding Andersen for 10 consecutive starts until the first back-to-back situation came up on the calendar. The wear and tear eventually took a toll on the Danish goaltender, who remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
The Leafs acquired Campbell on Feb. 5, 2020 along with forward Kyle Clifford from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for forward Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round picks. Campbell, an 11th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, was limited to 57 NHL games before his arrival in Toronto.
This season marks the best chance to show what he can do with an increased workload. The goal was never to replace Frederik Andersen, who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, with Campbell, whose contract through the 2021-22 season carries a cap-friendly hit of $1.65 million. But an increased workload would at least tell us if he’s ready for the task.
Andersen is with the team for the road trip and could return soon, but with Campbell on top of his game, the Leafs are certainly in no rush.
Campbell is winning over his teammates and he’s becoming popular with fans for his nice-guy interactions during practice and post-game interviews.
The next question is can he win over the coveted starter’s role at some point? This season could hold that answer.