A couple weeks ago, I asked Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock what his ideal usage was for goaltender Frederik Andersen. His answer was punctuated by several comically long pauses.
“That’s a great question,” Babcock said (long pause). “I gotta win today. That’s a great fantasy thing in the summer, so what do I do, do I win today? We’ll see what happens, how about that? (long pause) The better our team plays, the less he has to play.”
While the Leafs have been pretty good this season, Andersen has also played a ton, appearing in all but three games – one due to a minor knee injury, the other two being the second games of back-to-backs, where backup Garret Sparks got the call.
Since the start of the 2016-17 season, no NHL goaltender has faced more shots than Andersen and only Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has played more minutes. During that span, Andersen has boasted a .919 save percentage, despite some streakiness that limited his effectiveness, particularly at the beginning of some seasons.
This year, Andersen is leading the NHL in wins with 11 through 16 games, while also sporting a robust .934 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average. He may not be the favorite for the Vezina, given the work being done by Pekka Rinne in Nashville and old battery mate John Gibson in Anaheim, for example, but it’s hard not to see Andersen at least in the mix.
Thursday night in San Jose, Andersen had one of those big games, stopping 42 shots against the potent Sharks. Sure, the first goal he surrendered was a weird one where he couldn’t find the puck on a dump-in, but Andersen made amends by lofting a beauty pass up the ice later in the game for a Mitch Marner goal, giving the netminder his first assist on the year.
In his past five games, Andersen has given up a sum total of five goals. But here’s where it gets tricky: Toronto is going to be busy for the rest of the month.
The San Jose game was the first of a back-to-back with Anaheim up next. The Leafs return home for a bit of a respite and one game hosting Columbus, then have four games in six days, starting on the road in Carolina. This is where Babcock’s answer to my question will truly get fleshed out.
Sparks has struggled this year and though some of that could be chalked up to the little amount of game experience he has logged, there’s also the possibility that he’s just a really good AHL netminder at this point. Toronto famously lost two back-ups in one day when Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard were both claimed on waivers at the start of the year and that really hurt the organization’s depth – especially since one of Toronto’s best prospects is unsigned Boston College starter Joseph Woll (not to mention unsigned junior Ian Scott, who is looking pretty sharp this year).
Clearly getting William Nylander signed is the top priority right now, but it’s hard not to see GM Kyle Dubas fishing for a more experienced backup before the trade deadline.
Because the end goal for this season in Toronto is a long playoff run. Andersen, the workhorse, has not had success in the post-season since coming over to the Leafs from Anaheim. Small sample size of 13 games? Fair enough. But you have to at least look at burnout being part of the problem.
The Leafs know they have a goaltender who is finding his prime right now; the next step is managing those minutes and making sure he has enough gas when it matters most.