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What Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford bring to the Leafs

Arun Srinivasan
Contributor

Immediately after the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a 5-3 decision to the New York Rangers, general manager Kyle Dubas addressed one of the team’s perennial glaring needs — getting his team a quality backup goaltender with the season on the verge of slipping away.

Toronto traded forward Trevor Moore, along with Columbus’ 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 conditional third-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Kyle Clifford.

Frederik Andersen hasn’t been close to his top form for large stretches of the season, then suffered an upper-body injury which cast doubt upon the Maple Leafs’ playoff bid.

Toronto is fighting for its life, as Campbell and Clifford will be counted upon to inject some new energy into the lineup. Here’s what you need to know about the newest Maple Leafs.

Jack Campbell is the backup goaltender the Toronto Maple Leafs have been desperately searching for. (Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jack Campbell

Campbell is likely best known for his draft billing, advertised by some as the best American goaltending prospect since Rick DiPietro, before being selected 11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010. He won consecutive gold medals at the World U-18 tournament, where he was the best goaltender both years and was named as the best goaltender at the 2011 World Juniors after posting a sparkling .940 save percentage. As resumes go, few goalies have been as decorated as Campbell before reaching the NHL.

Assessing the trajectory of a young goaltender can often be an impossible task, but the 28-year-old never lived up to the pre-draft hype. He has emerged as a legitimate backup goaltender in the NHL, however.

Dubas is more familiar with Campbell than most teams would be. During his tenure as the general manager of the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, Dubas acquired Campbell from the Windsor Spitfires in a November 2011 blockbuster deal, his first trade since taking over the role.

Campbell is coming off the best season of his career, posting a .928 save percentage, 2.30 goals against average with two shutouts in 31 games during the 2018-19 campaign with the Kings. Prior to the 2018-19 season, Campbell played in just seven games, so while his underlying numbers were pretty good, it’s difficult to parse much meaning from a small sample size. Campbell also posted a 15.84 goals saved above average (GSAA), a metric that determines how many goals a goaltender prevented given their save percentage and shots faced against the league average save percentage with the same number of shots.

This season hasn’t been as fruitful for Campbell, accumulating a .900 save percentage with a 2.85 goals against average in 20 games. More troubling is his -4.84 GSAA, which might be the better predictive metric of how he’ll fare in a larger role, as Campbell will almost certainly be catapulted into the starter’s role over Michael Hutchinson with Andersen out.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that the Kings have been an absolute trainwreck this season, so all-in-all Campbell hasn’t been too bad considering the tire fire he’s working behind.

Campbell might be viewed as a fix to a temporary problem, but the Maple Leafs have desperately sought a quality backup goaltender since allowing Curtis McElhinney to walk after the 2017-18 season. However, Campbell’s not merely a short-term relief option here, as he’s under contract through 2021-22 after signing a two-year extension worth $3.3 million last September. Considering the Maple Leafs’ bleak salary cap situation, this has to be seen as a victory of sorts.

It really is a matter of expectation management, but Campbell looks to be a solid backup goaltender at an affordable price for a Maple Leafs team that needed an upgrade on a host of replacement-level options, even if he never met the ‘best goaltending prospect of the decade’ hype placed upon him a decade ago.

Kyle Clifford

Clifford won two Stanley Cups with Los Angeles as a bottom-six forward, playing a larger role on the 2013-14 team as an enforcer. He’s defensively responsible and could see some time on the penalty kill to offset his relative lack of offensive production — Clifford has posted six goals and 14 points in 53 games and is coming off a career-best campaign where he notched 21 points.

This might undersell Clifford, however, as his underlying numbers are better than you’d expect.

The Kings are retaining 50 percent of Clifford’s $1.8-million salary for this season before he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. If the Maple Leafs can keep him at a similar salary range, it’s a definitive victory for Dubas and his staff. But even if he doesn’t sign, it certainly adds a different dimension to the lineup. Whether the Maple Leafs need to add more grit and tenacity and truculence is a debate for another day, but it’s a cost-effective move for the duration of this year, at least.

Prior to becoming the Maple Leafs’ general manager, Dubas was the youngest agent certified by the NHLPA and he represented Clifford before having to relinquish his role. One would have to think that Dubas’ familiarity with Clifford influenced the decision and he knows better than most what the 29-year-old is capable of.

In any event, Clifford’s happy to be back in Toronto. That could soon change, however, as the Maple Leafs try to claw their way back into the playoffs amid what’s looking increasingly like a lost season.

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