One of the surprising things that happened for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season was the emergence of Joseph Woll as a young goalie with potential. Obviously, he wasn’t even on the team’s close radar. If he had been, the organization wouldn’t have signed veteran goalie Petr Mrazek as a free agent – especially to a $3.8 million two-year contract.
Instead, that money might have been used more wisely in other areas. Still, the logic of that signing seemed reasonable. Although goalie Jack Campbell had a breakout season in 2020-21, even setting an NHL record for consecutive wins at the start of a season, he had never played so many games during a single season. How then could make even the most hopeful organization believe he could do that same magic again – and then again, etc.
Obviously, it made sense for the team to hedge its bets. And they did. In hindsight, which is always much easier than foresight, had the Maple Leafs known perhaps Mrazek would be playing elsewhere and Woll would be the regular backup goalie.
Now, What to Do with Mrazek?
Of course, the Maple Leafs couldn’t have known. They also couldn’t have known that Mrazek would suffer a painful groin pull – then re-injure that same groin – and essentially be out for most of the season.
The plan was to balance both goalies’ starts on the season – playing a two-goalie system, with Campbell as 1A and Mrazek as 1B. And that might have worked had it not been for Mrazek’s injury. That’s where Woll came into play. (But that’s a story for another season as it worked out.)
As it stands, Mrazek has a 2-1-1 record, a goals-against-average of 4.12, and a save percentage of .880 in three games this season. His won/loss record is just fine, but his numbers are not stellar. And, as noted, he’s missed a huge number of games this season to his groin injury so it really isn’t his fault or doing.
Assuming Mrazek is healed from that injury, the Maple Leafs still face the question: “What to do with Mrazek?” In this post, I want to make the case that the Maple Leafs should consider playing him strategically over the last half of the 2021-22 regular season – for two reasons.
The Maple Leafs Are Wise to Play Mrazek Strategically in the Near Future
When the Maple Leafs consider the next couple of months, I think there are two reasons to deploy backup goalie Mrazek strategically.
First, given the impact of COVID-19 on the NHL season, most NHL teams seem to have a pile of games to make up that had earlier been postponed.
Second, because I believe the organization would like to move Mrazek during the offseason and replace him with an internal option (again Woll’s name comes up) in the team’s near future – like next season – they could use his salary-cap hit to re-sign other players it would like to keep around. Ilya Mikheyev comes to mind first.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Rescheduled Games
The Maple Leafs have played 33 games thus far on the season. In a full season, they’d play 82 – the math shows that 49 games are remaining. Unless the NHL season is extended – and it could be – that means that those 49 games will be played in a much shorter time frame than the first 33 games.
That compressed schedule means that Mrazek – or another goalie – will be needed to take some of the load off Campbell. Although Campbell’s playing well, he has never played so many games in a single season. Monitoring his games and his health will be critical. As well, the Maple Leafs must also have an eye to the end of the season when compressed games become more regular.
If the team is going to do well – that is, get into the postseason and go far in the postseason, it’s critical that Campbell will be ready to perform at his best as the team tries to finish as high as it can in the Eastern Conference.
In that situation, it would be wise to give Campbell the more difficult games, because he’s proven to be the stronger goalie. That would leave the second goalie to play the easier games. Strategic use of Mrazek, should he not be able to pull out of his funk – he wins, but has poor statistics – suggests giving him the easier games is wise.
The Need to Build Up Mrazek’s Win/Loss Record
Do the Maple Leafs believe that Mrazek will be moved at the end of the season? Given how this season has unfolded, that path seems like a strong possibility. If so, there’s a second reason for strategically utilizing Mrazek. It would be wise to pad his numbers to make him look stronger for a possible trade.
Given the background of events this season, there’s no way the team could be as confident with Mrazek in goal as they are with Campbell in goal. Unless Mrazek completely turns his season around, he’s a bit of an anchor to the Maple Leafs’ plans moving forward into next season.
However, one way to lift that anchor might be to play Mrazek strategically against the “easier” teams and hope he shows well enough to become more attractive to another team during the coming offseason. Say he ends up with a 12-4-1 record. That would look good regardless of what his save percentage or goals-against-average might be.
Maple Leafs’ Fans Have to Hope Mrazek Can Help Carry the Load
The COVID-19 upcoming compressed schedule will soon be upon the Maple Leafs. Should Mrazek play as well as he has in the past, all will be well. The Maple Leafs will make the playoffs and might even experience postseason success.
I still believe the team will try to move Mrazek during the offseason. However, a good regular season will help everyone – including Mrazek. However, should the troubles continue as they have, the Maple Leafs will have a different issue.
Maple Leafs’ fans will find out sooner rather than later.
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