Former Leaf Jack Campbell is struggling to find his game


NEW YORK—Not a lot has gone right for goalie Jack Campbell since he left the Toronto Maple Leafs to sign over the summer as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers.

Even sitting on the bench — where he’s mostly been lately — has been an adventure.

He was sporting a broken nose on Tuesday after getting hit by a puck that went over the boards Monday in Edmonton’s 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils.

Unlike the losses and goals against that have piled up early in his journey as an Oiler, he couldn’t take the blame for an errant puck. But he could laugh about it.

“Broken nose. Nothing crazy,” said Campbell. “I saw we were dumping it in high, so I kind of went to grab it thinking it might come into the bench, so I put my glove out and the defenceman deflected it, right on my nose.”

The “at least he stopped it” jokes aside, the broken nose puts into question whether he’ll start on Wednesday against the Islanders. It would be his first start in more than a week and while coach Jay Woodcroft was leaning that way, he needed to hear from the team’s medical staff first.

The Oilers have a great deal invested in Campbell — $25 million (U.S.) over five years to be specific — and so far Campbell has delivered far less than expected. Though he’s 6-4-0, he’s goals-against average is 4.27 and save percentage is .873, by far the worst numbers he’s put up since he became an NHL regular in 2018-19.

“I’ve been through this pretty much every year since I’ve played hockey,” said Campbell of his current struggles. “Last year after the all-star break, there was a lot longer stretch, actually. But I’ve never really started this poorly before. I take things personally all the time and expect to play a certain way. So to play the way I have out of the gate isn’t ideal, but I know I have a lot of great hockey left and I can’t wait to show everybody.”

Campbell made a remarkable impact in Toronto. His 11 wins in a row to begin the 2020-21 season set a team record and tied a league record for most consecutive wins from the start of a season. He represented Toronto at the all-star game last year.

He said when he was at his best he was “just having some fun and stopping a lot of rubber.”

That hasn’t been the case in Edmonton. The mental side of the game seems to weigh more heavily on Campbell than most players, and he’s not afraid to admit it, which is one of the reasons he was such a popular player in Toronto.

Woodcroft decided to let Stuart Skinner (4-5-0, 2.78, .921) play the last few games, giving Campbell a chance to “reset” both physically and mentally. Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had to do the same thing during Campbell’s tenure in Toronto.

“This is just a bump in the road. And he’s had bigger bumps than this,” said Oilers forward Zach Hyman, also Campbell’s teammate in Toronto. “He’s such a passionate guy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He deeply cares about helping his teammates and making an impact. Hockey is not an individual sport by any means. It’s the most team sport out there where one guy’s never at fault when you lose. And it’s the sum of the parts.”

As things stood heading into Tuesday night’s games, the Oilers were on the outside of a playoff, or even wild-card, position in a division they were expected to dominate. So getting Campbell back on his game is a high priority.

The Oilers believe they simply haven’t played well in most of Campbell’s starts, especially the last one when he allowed seven goals to the Carolina Hurricanes.

“We haven’t played our best in front of him,” said Hyman. “He takes a lot on himself. He puts a lot of the blame on himself when things don’t go well. But there’s a lot more to it. And in the games that he’s played, especially, we haven’t played well in front of him.”

So that journey Campbell is on — from prospect, to suspect, to backup, to starter, to all-star, through all-consuming self-doubt — simply continues.

“It’s just a balance that I’m still learning. You’ve got to just be accountable, but you can’t be getting too down. It’s a lot like a lot of hockey, not too many days in between games. So I’ve just got to bounce back.”


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