Leafs Nation went from a state of anger and panic to one of jubilation last night, as Toronto followed up a tough 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers with a trade that, on the surface, addressed two of the team’s needs – backup goaltending, and toughness. The deal sends Trevor Moore, a third-round pick, and a conditional draft pick (minimum 3rd, maximum 2nd), to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford, with 50% of Clifford’s salary retained for the remainder of the season.

The conditions on the sliding pick bump Toronto’s spend to a second-round pick the Leafs make the playoffs, and either re-sign Clifford or Campbell wins six more regular-season games for the remainder of this season.

To be honest, though, I’m not completely sold on this move. I think it checks a lot of the media and fan boxes, and helps team management win the PR war, but I’ve got some doubts towards how much better the team has actually gotten through it, and the assets spent. Let’s break this down a little bit.

The Forward Swap

Firstly, I think one has to look at the forwards being traded here as an asset wash, and as a move likely made as much or more to trickle in some additional value for the Kings as it was to check some boxes for the Leafs.

I do think that Clifford is a genuinely decent hockey player who should fit into the Leafs just fine. He’s not overly productive (about a point every six games over his career, with a career-high of 11 goals and 21 points last season), and he’s been consistently in the green on possession, with his last sub-50% Corsi season coming in 2011. He’s got a bit of sandpaper to him, he’s willing to drop the gloves – maybe not as much as he did at the start of his career, but still a few times a year – and he’s got the local-ish boy icing on the cake, being from Ayr, Ontario (in the Kitchener/Waterloo region).

I think a total package like that is nice to have on your bottom line at the $800,000 cap hit that Clifford will have after salary retention. I like that he has experience in some deep, successful playoff runs, though he’ll likely be teaching the same lessons as his once-again teammate in Jake Muzzin. So, the concern here isn’t that Clifford is bad, nor is it that there’s really a concern in bringing him in.

Rather, there’s a reality in assessing the cost of the trade, and that’s that a player like Trevor Moore does carry an equivalent cost going the other way. The very quick 180-degree turn on what Moore is as a result of this trade, if we’re being honest about things, is very peculiar. Moore, after having an incredible 2018 playoff and half of an 18/19 regular season with the Toronto Marlies, won over a lot of fans with the big club with his tenaciousness, fearlessness, and pestiness playing a bottom-six role that didn’t afford him the same scoring opportunities that he had in the minors.

This year hadn’t gone quite so well for him, having suffered a concussion early in the year. His production hasn’t been overly great either (5 points in 27 games), though the difference between his and Clifford’s rates isn’t much of a needle mover. He also throws the body around as much if not more (though admittedly, 5’10 doesn’t hit as hard as 6’2), blocks more shots, and is just as involved in the play. He’s not as intimidating, but he’s as annoying, so in a lot of respects, those expecting an overhaul in physical energy to come from this move might be disappointed. If it wasn’t for the fact that Clifford is comfortable with dropping the gloves (which is an asset when it comes from a capable player like him), this would largely be a wash in the grit department.

One does wonder if Moore has more to give offensively, given his prior production college and the AHL, and that’s something that closes the overall gap to me. Not to mention, he’s four years younger, and much easier to cost control – which is valuable to a cap ceiling team like the Leafs. Moore had another year at $775,000 to his name, while Clifford’s “true” salary is $1.6 million and his contract expires in July. This will likely make him a more expensive contract on the books if they wish to keep him than Moore was, or that they’ll have to make another shrewd signing or call up in the summer – not impossible or even improbable, but not a guarantee, and that guarantee does have value.

With all that considered, I’m pretty on-board with what Clifford brings, and think he’ll be a useful fixture in the lineup. However, I think they gave to get in moving Moore for him, that the Kings made an intriguing call in selecting him as their player to take back, and that the two more or less cancel each other out from a value perspective, which leaves…

Jack Campbell & The Historical Market

As many of you know, I was not a huge fan of the idea of spending big on the backup goaltender trade market. I’ve written about it repeatedly, be it about the previously most popular target in Alexandar Georgiev, or just generally speaking.

To be perfectly clear, let’s not confuse this with “I trust Michael Hutchinson”, a completely different point that many seem to believe I carry. If Michael Hutchinson was the backup on the trade market, I wouldn’t have had any interest in acquiring him.

This is largely because backup goaltending should, for all intents and purposes, be irrelevant to the long-view of a contender that has a heavy-workload starter. It’s not a position where significant assets are conceded to acquire pure backups, especially veteran ones, and the marginal gains aren’t significant between them. If you’re super lucky, you get a backup who goes on a lights-out tear for a bit, but those finds are unpredictable – if they were predictable, they likely wouldn’t be backups.

As well, if these runs were predictable, teams typically wouldn’t be offering them up. Goaltenders are a lot like running backs in football – they carry a disproportionate impact towards the team’s results, the good ones get cherished, but you never truly know how long the good ones stay good. You hoard them while you can, and if one is on the block, they typically come with some form of an asterisk, and fail to reach expectations of large trade returns.

On that note, the trade market for goaltenders in general over the past year looks something like this:

  • November 30, 2019: Eric Comrie for Vili Sararijarvi
  • November 1, 2019: Louis Domingue for a conditional 7th
  • September 27, 2019: Antoine Bibeau for Nicolas Meloche
  • July 30, 2019: Mike Condon + 6th for Ryan Callahan + 5th
  • July 23, 2019: Garret Sparks for David Clarkson + 4th
  • June 30, 2019: James Reimer for Scott Darling + 6th
  • June 14, 2019: Connor Ingram for a 7th
  • February 25, 2019: Keith Kinkaid for a 5th
  • February 12, 2019: Marek Mazanec for a 7th

In other words, a lot of “basically nothing”, largely given for netminders who had some form of waiver clearance and could be placed in the minors without issue – which is how the Leafs ended up giving a 5th round pick to Florida for Michael Hutchinson, and Tobias Lindberg and a 6th to Vegas for Calvin Pickard a year prior.

With that in mind, a second and a third, or two thirds if the conditions don’t get met, kind of blows the roof of the backup market. It pulls him away from the typical replacement level diceroll, and puts him in the territory of more substantial acquisitions in recent years, like Edmonton’s trade for Cam Talbot, or Colorado’s trade for Philipp Grubauer.

But the circumstances here aren’t quite the same. Both Grubauer and Talbot had strung together consistently successful runs in the AHL and NHL for years prior to their trades, and were acquired to be transitioned into starters for their respective teams. Talbot immediately took over for three and a half years in Edmonton, while Grubauer was given a 1B workload last season and is Colorado’s starter this year.

Campbell, more likely than not, is coming in to be the backup. He won’t be stealing 35-40 games from Andersen in the regular season, much like he wasn’t in Los Angeles despite Jonathan Quick’s descent into the talent abyss. Campbell, who was once touted as the best goaltending prospect on earth, has truthfully struggled to do consistently well at serious levels over the past decade. He was a sub-0.900 OHL goaltender, was was a slightly above-average netminder at the AHL level, and this year, he’s putting up a 0.900 save percentage over 20 games with the kids. He’s four years removed from being sent to the ECHL because he was putting up numbers worse than Hutchinson’s current ones with the Leafs in the AHL.

Essentially, he has one exciting season under his belt, a 0.928 season last year with the Kings which had a lot of people excited about the possibility that he had finally, after nearly a decade of waiting, found that extra gear. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case this season, as mentioned above. Some cautious optimism is being placed in the fact that his 5-on-5 save percentage sits 40th among the 60 goaltenders who have played at least 10 full games this season (Hutchinson, by comparison, is 59th), though it can also be noted that he sits 56th in High-Danger save percentage (Hutchinson: 45th), and that his goals vs. expected goals still remain about a -5 at 5-on-5, and a -12 in all situations.

This is all to say, while he’s having a better season than Hutchinson is, that’s a pretty low bar, and the gain isn’t a massive one if he continues to play at this level – particularly considering that Hutchinson has improved in since the coaching change, as much as these appearances make you feel otherwise. Hutchinson had a combined 0.945 save percentage in his previous four starts, and is ranked 19th in high-danger SV% since the coaching change, which is important when you’re facing the closest, on average, shots on goal in the league.

While Hutchinson wasn’t getting the overall job done, that pattern of concession for the Leafs could spell trouble for Campbell, who is struggling mightily with those saves, and even in his dominant 2018/19, was only middle of the pack in that metric.

There are other pushes and pulls to joining a new team as well. Some feel that playing for a struggling Kings roster pulled down his numbers. I’m not certain this is fair, given that as low as they are in the standings, a lot of their process looks good. Los Angeles is Top-10 in the NHL in nearly every 5-on-5 defensive rate metric, including allowing the fewest shots on goal per hour. It’s a lack of finishing talent up-front (smiles in Ilya Kovalchuk) and, well, weak goaltending that has cost them games. It seems like a bit of a paradox to say that Campbell’s performance can be ignored because the Kings are losing games, if the Kings are losing games to his performance.

It also doesn’t account for the change in pressure. Los Angeles is a smaller market in terms of an engaged audience, and the market has, by and large, accepted a rebuild. Not just that, but Campbell already had his contract security that people are weirdly embracing as a positive, rather than a potential concern – he has a two-year extension kicking in this summer at $1.65 million. Campbell’s results are pressureless results, and he now enters the biggest hockey market in the world, that’s in absolute chaos at the moment (like, more so than usual), and is especially focused on the backup goaltender.

When we say especially focused, we mean that the backup goaltender is, and for the last several years, consistently has been under more pressure than the starter. I don’t know if Michael Hutchinson has been talked about more by Canadian hockey media than Connor McDavid, but I don’t know that it’s probably far closer than it should be. Starting with Mike Babcock publicly pressuring Jhonas Enroth through the media at the start of the 2016/17 season, and with some reprieve in Curtis McElhinney’s second season, every second half of a back to back (where the team is already tired), has gotten the narrative air time of a Game 7 in a playoff series, and while Sheldon Keefe’s more flexible scheduling has removed the date-circling, the hype heading into those games remains the same.

Enroth couldn’t handle it. McElhinney, to his credit, could, defying years of sub-replacement goaltending prior to briefly be the best backup Toronto has had in years. Garret Sparks couldn’t handle it, though I wonder how much different it would have been under Keefe. Hutchinson seems to handle it better under Keefe, but still hasn’t handled it well enough to get the front office’s confidence. The big question here will be – can Campbell?

That’s the question in general, right? Can he handle the pressure? Can he handle a team that might make him face more pucks in his weaker areas? Can he get back to a form that he’s held for just a few months of the past decade?

I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have a confident answer here, and that’s the bigger issue. Yes, we can safely assume that he’ll be a little better than Hutchinson, and at least take some pressure off of everyone by being a different name in the conversation. We can assume there will be less media breathing down everyone’s back because the Leafs “addressed toughness” and “got their goalie”. Maybe those things calm the environment. But do we have any degree of certainty that Campbell stands tall and is a solution, not just for today, but for the following two seasons where he makes double the salary of the prior options whose careers he hasn’t really exceeded?

I don’t have that confidence. Kyle Dubas might, and I’m not sure if I want him to or not. On one hand, I hope he doesn’t have that confidence, because I don’t see a rational way to have it here – the only way I can see having confidence here is through emotion and intuition. On the other hand, I hope he does, because he didn’t just dip his toes into the pool – he sprung on the board and did a cannonball. Yes, two mid-picks and a depth forward swap isn’t a huge loss if it fails, but it’s high from a relative standpoint, and it’s not great to set an expectation that you will pay a premium for whatever happens to be available when the going gets tough.

Not to mention, if this doesn’t work out, this one won’t be easy to get out of as the previous attempts with goaltenders who had similar highs and lows. If it works (and for everyone’s sake, it would be great if it did), no one will mind – the huge market price Lou Lamoriello paid for Andersen is a great example, but if it doesn’t, this might get a little worse than “at least you tried”.

While our hearts may say its better to roll a new set of dice than hoping that the die you don’t trust finally starts landing on some high numbers, I think this trade makes more sense in the heart than it does in the brain. While I’m overall ambivalent with equal pros and cons towards the Clifford/Moore swap, I don’t think Jack Campbell is the guy you pull this trigger for.

It’s a heck of a bet. If nothing else, I have to give them credit for standing by whatever convictions, evidence, and intuitions led them here. We’ll see where it takes them.

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