Frederik Andersen was grateful for the opportunity to join his teammates for the team's road trip in Vancouver and Winnipeg over the last nine days.
Typically, players who are hurt don't accompany the team on the road, but Andersen is no ordinary player and this is no ordinary season.
"It's been huge and a boost in my mood try to spend some more time with the guys," the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender said. "I think, on the road is great for that as well, to get out of the condo and not just sit at home and rehabbing by myself. I think that was huge and I was happy to do that."
His teammates were equally happy to see Andersen back.
"He's been the backbone of the team for a while and it's great having him back," Alex Kerfoot said. "He looks good out there."
During a practice in Vancouver last week, the pending unrestricted free agent joined his teammates for the tail end of the session and was welcomed to a loud roar and stick taps from his teammates as he took the ice.
Auston Matthews, who normally doesn't stay out long after practice sessions, made an exception to take shots on his teammate and friend.
On Monday, Andersen completed his first practice with the team, an important step before any possible return to action. He hasn't played a game since allowing four goals on 18 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Mar. 19. One day earlier, the team's starting goaltender admitted that he wasn't 100 percent healthy.
With an .876 save percentage in March, a decision was reached between Andersen and the training staff to stop playing, something the team's starter for five seasons said goes against his competitive instincts.
"I reached the point where I just couldn't feel confident in the net and pushing and stopping as hard as I needed to be aggressive, Andersen said. "I think as a player and as a competitor, you don't want to admit or say stop yourself. I think it was maybe going on too long. I was just happy I caught it before and it didn't get any worse."
Andersen said it was the area around the knee that was bothering him. The lingering injury previously kept him out of the lineup for two weeks before he returned on Mar. 3 in a 6-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers.
During his latest absence, Jack Campbell took the reigns between the pipes. The team's backup goaltender went on to set an NHL record for the longest winning streak to start a season with 11 wins.
With Andersen staying off the ice, the Leafs were able to utilize Andersen's $5 million cap hit and placed the Danish goaltender on long-term injured reserve. The afforded space allowed the Leafs to shore up their roster. A series of trades ensued and many involved salary retention from other clubs in order to make it allfit. The end result was the acquisitions of forwards Nick Foligno, Stefan Noesen, defensemen Ben Hutton and goaltender David Rittich. Acquiring injured forward Riley Nash got it all started as the Leafs had to place Andersen on LTIR to make room for Nash, who himself was subsequently put on LTIR.
It's not lost on Andersen what's at stake for his team this season and he seems determined to get back out there.
"I think we really have an opportunity to do something special this year," Andersen said. "I think the group we have here is amazing."
With a full practice under his belt, the focus shifts to when and how Andersen gets some reps in before the postseason.
"I still have some time to get up to speed again and hopefully see some game action before the playoffs," Andersen said.
So how does that happen? There are a few scenarios at play.
According to Puckpedia.com, the Leafs currently have approx. $1.828 million left in LTIR cap space. That leaves approx. $3.172 million in space required to open up before Toronto could activate Andersen and his $5 million cap hit.
Defenseman Zach Bogosian qualifies for LTIR after the team announced he would miss a minimum of four weeks with a shoulder injury. That brings the total down to $2.172 million.
What happens after this is a bit of a mess.
Scenario 1: Zach Hyman suffered an MCL sprain in his knee on Apr. 18. The timeline for his injury is two weeks, but if that extends longer, the Leafs can put Hyman and his accompanying $2.25 million cap hit on LTIR. The moves of both Bogosian and Hyman to LTIR would allow the Leafs to activate Andersen to the roster.
Scenario 2: If Hyman returns, it gets trickier. With less than 10 games remaining in the schedule, any player who played in any of those games against the Jets on Thursday and Saturday in Winnipeg is not eligible for LTIR should they get hurt. That's a rule in the CBA where LTIR is no longer permissible to players with less than 10 games remaining in the season.
The Leafs currently have one player on their roster that they can send down to free up space and that is forward Nick Robertson. His $821,667 cap hit brings the space remaining after Bogosian's LTIR to approx. $1.35 million. Robertson was not on the team's roster when the trade deadline passed and thus is allowed to be removed from Toronto's roster if needed.
That alone isn't enough to free up Andersen to return.
Scenario 3: A player who hasn't played for Toronto in the last couple of games could be put retroactively on LTIR if an injury occurred outside of a game. The only player that can be subject to that at the moment is defenseman Ben Hutton. That move in combination with Robertson's removal from the roster and Bogosian on LTIR brings the amount needed to clear off the books to approx. $400k. That still isn't enough to get Andersen activated.
Scenario 4: The Leafs could look to move an asset to another team, but these are rare as the player acquired wouldn't be eligible to play for the new club until the following season since the trade deadline has passed. This doesn't seem like a likely scenario. However, if everything in scenario 3 plays out and you only need to clear approx. $400k, it may not be hard to find a suitor looking for a pending RFA that can play for them next season. Problem is, why would you want to part with any asset at this time of year in exchange for a few regular-season games?
Scenario 5: There is an unprecedented situation the Leafs find themselves in, and that's the extension of their regular season from May 8 to May 14.
According to PuckPedia, the daily cap calculation rules are unchanged and there will still be 116 days in a season. Teams playing beyond May 8 will be held to a cap number and roster moves around that will be decided on by the league.
This is tricky. If the Leafs provide medical records that their players are healthy to play and the cap calculation is officially over, what's the basis for the NHL to say no?
The NHL can rule the player ineligible and Sportsnet reported that situations involving LTIR are being watched closely by the league. but with the salary cap having no explicit rules for this situation, do the Leafs make the case that the cap should no longer apply, similar to that of the playoffs? This seems highly unlikely, but if the Leafs have proven anything, it's that they know how to bend the cap to their viewpoint.
Scenario 6: If all of the options have been exhausted and Toronto is still stuck, the Leafs may just decide to put one of Hyman or Andersen on a conditioning loan.
CBA Article 13.9 states: "A player whom was previously on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) may be loaned to a minor league club for a maximum of six days or three games for the purpose of determining if the player is fit to play. This player does not need to pass through waivers."
This allows the Leafs to get Andersen and or Hyman into game action for a week before the playoffs begin.
Scenario 1 or 6 seems to be the most likely situation that allows for Andersen to see some game action. With Campbell regaining his form in his last two starts, there is no pressing need by the Leafs to act.
"Our focus right now is just go through this process and get Fred feeling comfortable and get him ready for game action whenever that is," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "But he's been going along a path and we'll make a plan for him at such a time that he deems himself ready to go and feels comfortable."