“This has been the most eventful week of my life”
Few people have experienced what Erik Kallgren has over the past six days. The 25-year-old went from an unknown minor-leaguer to the Maple Leafs’ potential savior in less time than a new Euphoria episode takes to drop, making his NHL debut in relief of another putrid Petr Mrazek performance on March 10th, and proceeding to possibly steal the starter’s job in hockey’s most heavily scrutinized market.
Yet, Kallgren is simply along for the ride.
The soft-spoken Swede has been asked multiple times since his ballyhooed entrance if he views this as a chance to take the crease and run with it. Kallgren has visibly shrunk at these questions, affirming each time that he’s not over-thinking his situation and is, instead, taking his first NHL stint day-by-day.
The Maple Leafs don’t have that luxury, however.
With the trade deadline less than a week away, and their goaltending duo comprised of an unplayable Mrazek and injured Jack Campbell, Kallgren’s performance carries massive influence over the team’s short-term plans.
Rewind the clock to last Thursday, before Kallgren ever touched NHL ice, and it seemed all but certain that Kyle Dubas would be scouring the trade market for another body to help in net, surrendering assets once again for a depth netminder — a la David Rittich in 2021.
It made sense. Campbell had been struggling mightily before a rib injury landed him on the shelf, and Mrazek responded to the opportunity to stake his claim in Toronto’s crease by playing the worst hockey of his career.
Reinforcements seemed inevitable.
Now, not so much.
“It gave the guys confidence, the way he played,” said Sheldon Keefe of Kallgren after the rookie shut out the Dallas Stars in his first career NHL start on Tuesday.
“There were a couple of tips in the first period that he made seem really easy. And guys fed off that.”
Kallgren’s arrival has not only given the Maple Leafs some stability in goal. It’s galvanized their entire defense corps, with the team allowing only a combined two goals (one of which came with three seconds left on Thursday while holding a two-goal lead) during Kallgren’s starts against a pair of playoff teams in Dallas and the contending Carolina Hurricanes.
There’s a calmness on the blueline with him in net. And, as a result, the Leafs have rattled off perhaps their two biggest wins of the season.
“It’s a hard game to play when you’re pulling the puck out of your net all the time,” said Keefe.
“It becomes a real challenge because you’re constantly, as players on the ice, you’re questioning yourself. Maybe you made a mistake on the ice somewhere, or you’re a little more nervous.”
The Maple Leafs are not a nervous team in front of Kallgren. Recent games have seen them allow opponents to come to them, opting for patience over a misplaced sense of aggression that would otherwise compensate for a lack of confidence in their goaltender.
Now, every giveaway and odd-man rush is not, at least for the time being, a guaranteed goal against. That has given way to an air of flexibility. And now armed with some peace of mind, Toronto’s forwards and defensemen alike have been able to focus on themselves for a change.
It’s worth recognizing, though, how small a two-game sample really is.
Kallgren wouldn’t be the first goaltender to explode out of the gates only to come crashing back to Earth soon after. Dubas must now use 150 total minutes of NHL experience to determine whether Kallgren allows his team to spend assets elsewhere ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.
That’s not an easy decision to make.
One important question that dictates this process is whether any of the goaltenders on the trade market would offer an upgrade over what the Maple Leafs already have.
Marc-Andre Fleury undoubtedly would, given that he’s the reigning Vezina winner and has put up decent numbers on a putrid Blackhawks team. But Fleury has the right to sign off on any trade he’s a part of, and all indications seem to hint at him wanting to stay put in Chicago through the end of the season. So, no dice.
With the man they dub Flower off the board, the remaining candidate pool is filled with career backups and veteran 1Bs who, while useful, wouldn’t be slam-dunk upgrades over a healthy Campbell.
Anton Forsberg is putting together a terrific season for himself with the Ottawa Senators. But he’s still a 29-year-old career journeyman who was waived by three different organizations last season and has never performed to this level ever before.
Is betting on Forsberg continuing to perform like a starter for the first time ever a gamble worth taking?
Then there are veterans Semyon Varlamov and Jaroslav Halak, who are intriguing names in their own right. Take stock of the situation, though, and it’s unlikely any team would feel all that good riding into the playoffs with either player as their top option.
So, we arrive back where we started.
What this all really boils down to is Kallgren.
The Maple Leafs have other roster needs to address, namely a second-pair defenseman with Jake Muzzin’s return still uncertain, and only a set amount of assets to work with. Kallgren’s continued emergence would allow them to focus those assets onto other key areas, saving the prospects and draft capital that Dubas might’ve been forced to surrender for a previously mentioned goaltending option for an upgrade on D.
Saturday’s game in Nashville, now, becomes all the more important. Another strong start from Kallgren goes to lengths to affirm his status at the NHL level. A dud, however, thrusts the front office deeper into their current state of uncertainty.