The fact that Campbell has played in only eleven games by this late point of the season is part of what makes his play such a wonderful and inspiring story during this unique hockey season. He is 29 years old, but it is only now that he is perhaps blossoming into the goalie many thought he would have been a dozen years ago.
Indeed, between 2009 and 2011 Campbell was regarded by many as the best goalie not playing in the NHL.
Born in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1992, Campbell first rose to prominence during his two years with the USNTDP (2008-10). He led the Americans to gold at the 2009 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship and again a year later, when he was named IIHF Directorate Best Goalie. But even before he won that second U18 gold he led the U.S. to gold at the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, helping beat Canada, 6-5 in overtime of the gold medal game. A year later, he won bronze at the World Juniors and was named U20 Best Goalie, giving him four medals in three years at the two premier junior events on the IIHF calendar.
NHL teams took notice, of course, and the Dallas Stars drafted him a lofty 11th overall in 2010. The future looked bright for Campbell, and he decided to play in the OHL the following year with a pro career in mind rather than at the University of Michigan, where he had previously indicated an interest.
After two years with Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie, Campbell decided to make the move to the pro ranks full time, and the Stars assigned him to their AHL team, the Texas Stars. But far from being a prospect who shot up the depth charts, Campbell seemed weighted in the minors. He didn’t get an NHL start until 20 October 2013, but he allowed six goals in a 6-3 loss to Anaheim and that sealed his fate.
Back to the minors he went, not moving north to the NHL but rather south, to the ECHL, with the Idaho Steelheads. Unimpressed, Dallas traded him to Los Angeles for Nick Ebert, a defenceman who had been drafted a lowly 211th by the Kings in 2012. It wasn’t until November 2016 that the Kings recalled Campbell, gave him one period of play (no goals), and sent him back to their AHL farm team, the Ontario Reign.
Tucked in to these years in the minors, though, was an appearance with the U.S. at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague. Although he played in only two games as backup to Connor Hellebuyck, the Americans beat the hosts, 3-0, in the bronze medal game.
Back in the NHL, Campbell played in five games with L.A. in 2017/18, but he really got his first big break a year later as the full-time backup to Jonathan Quick. Campbell played in 31 games that year but had an unimpressive 10-14-1 record. A year later, he got into only 20 games and was 8-10-2.
At the point the Kings also decided to cut bait and traded him to the Leafs. It looked like a small deal at the time. The Leafs had Dane Frederik Andersen in goal as the solid number-one man. But the interesting back story is that Leafs’ GM Kyle Dubas was the GM of the Soo Greyhounds in 2011/12 when he acquired Campbell from Windsor. That Dubas was interested in Campbell now that they were both in the NHL was no coincidence.
Campbell did get into six games with the Leafs in 2019/20 before Covid shut down the season in March 2020, and his 3-2-1 record with a GAA of 2.63 was certainly respectable. When the league re-started, it went straight to the playoffs, so Campbell didn’t see any action. When the current season began, though, he had worked his way into the backup role behind Andersen and was sure to see a decent amount of work given the league wanted to get a 56-game schedule in by May.
Soon after, it was Andersen who suffered an injury and Campbell took over the starter’s job. And since then Campbell has done nothing but win one game after another. Andersen hasn’t been seen in nearly a month, indicating the injury is more serious than previously thought, and with the playoffs only a month away it now seems like Campbell is the team’s go-to goalie.
During his eleven-game win streak Campbell allowed only 22 goals, but perhaps the most impressive win was the last, a 6-5 thriller against Ottawa. Campbell didn’t play his best, but he made some key saves in the third when it mattered most and his teammates fought for him by scoring one more than the Sens.
"It was a fun game, honestly. It's not fun giving up goals. I expect more out of myself," Campbell said. "But Ottawa came to play, and so did we. And I just think the guys played so well in front of me tonight."
Campbell’s career struggles and his infectious personality have captivated the Leafs’ dressing room in a way no one could have anticipated a month ago. Of course, he’ll lose a game some time, but he is clearly the main man in goal and his timing couldn’t be better. Andersen is not only injured, but he is an unrestricted free agent this summer, meaning the Leafs might be looking to Campbell not just for the next couple of months but for several years.
In 2010, Campbell looked like a sure-fire superstar. More than a decade later, he may be realizing those expectations.
Better late than never.