With the Toronto Maple Leafs jumping out to 3-1 to start the year, and the offence clicking on all cylinders, Torontonians are ready to plan the parade route down Yonge Street. The cynic inside all of us, says let’s all take a deep breath. After all, we are only three games in. That same cynic, however, must also confess that the Leafs look good. If the Leafs are going to make a run this season, it won’t come down to Auston Matthews, William Nylander or Mitch Marner, but the brick wall behind the whole operation: Frederik Andersen.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Will Go as Far as Frederik Andersen Takes Them
We are all familiar with the old cliche. Offence sells tickets, while defence wins championships. The Leafs offence could very well be the best in the National Hockey League, with 22 goals through four games. Not that selling tickets have ever been a problem in Toronto, except for that short time in 2015.
We know that the Maple Leafs defence isn’t the best. Even with the additions of veteran Ron Hainsey, as well as rookies Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, there is room for improvement. This despite some already strong pieces in Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Nikita Zaitsev, not to mention the developing Connor Carrick. Truth be told, perhaps Toronto could be the verge of a solid, home-grown, defensive core. But it is not a championship contending defence, at least not yet.
Enter Frederik Andersen.
The Start of the 2016-17 Season
Andersen started his Leafs career by missing the World Cup of Hockey after injuring himself during an Olympic Qualifying match with his home country of Denmark. He was shaky in the beginning for Toronto, surrendering 22 goals in his first five contests, never looking very comfortable in any of the contests.
Criticism came quickly. After all, Leafs fans have long memories about goaltending woes. Perhaps it was a reminder of Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft or Jonas Gustavsson. Or the lack of a franchise guy since Ed Belfour or Curtis Joseph. Maybe it came from the pain that Tuukka Rask was once in their possession and was dealt for the aforementioned Raycroft, arguably the biggest fleecing in franchise history.
Yet one year and 33 wins later, here Andersen stands, fresh off Toronto’s first playoff berth in a full season since 2003-04. He was one of only two goaltenders to face more than 2000 shots a year ago, making him one of, if not the, most important player to the organization’s success.
Game One @ Winnipeg
In the first period against the Winnipeg Jets in the Leafs season opener, Andersen was perfect. His incredible play kept Toronto in the first, despite his team getting pushed on their heels out of the gate. Andersen shutout Winnipeg in the first period despite the Leafs short-handed three times. To the tune of 18 first period saves, Andersen gave Toronto the opportunity to burst the floodgates open with three goals to end the opening frame.
Game Two vs. New York
In the second game of the season, Frederik Andersen out-dueled Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled after the first period after allowing five goals. Despite a shaky second period in which the New York Rangers managed to tie the game, Andersen did not allow New York to take all the wind out of Toronto’s sails by scoring a goal to break the tie. He held the line, yet again, just long enough for Toronto to retake the lead and win the game.
Game Three vs. Chicago
In the third game of the season for Toronto, both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Leafs entered the game having scored 15 goals apiece. Chicago started out quick, scoring a pair of goals in the first, but Andersen held down the fort in the second allowing his team to cut the deficit in half. In the third, Anderson was nearly perfect again, if it weren’t for a beautiful slap pass from Chicago defender Gustav Forsling that found Richard Panik to extend the Blackhawks lead. From there, he shut the door, allowing his team to tie it in regulation and get the win in overtime
Game Four vs. New Jersey
This was by far Andersen’s worst showing of the season. In contrast to what he was able to do against the Jets, he seemed to do the opposite against the New Jersey Devils. Toronto dominated the play out shooting the Devils 50-31. Cory Schneider quelled the Leafs attack on one end, and the score was tied at two entering the second period. And that’s when the game unraveled. A tick-tack-toe passing play found Pavel Zacha in the slot on the power play to give the devils the lead. Then with five minutes left in the period, Brian Gibbons buried a short handed goal while Toronto was on a 5-3 power play. Andersen would go on to allow six goals in the contest, including four goals on 21 shots through the second and third periods.
Not all of these contests were pretty.
And it is fairly clear after their contest with the Devils that Toronto has a long way to go. But there is no column in the stats sheet for pretty wins. Or ugly losses for that matter. The bottom line is Toronto found a way to battle and win three out of four games. They did so because their goaltender allowed them to, even though at times, they weren’t playing well in front of him.
The truth is, Andersen won’t have to be perfect every night. The prolific offence in front of him will allow the Maple Leafs to win games even when they surrender four or five goals. He just has to be good enough to keep his team in the game. To make that one big save. To not give up “the next one”. To keep the young guns within striking distance of their opponents. Nobody else on the team can do that; not Matthews; not Marner; and not Nylander.
Frederik Andersen can
But he will need to be better than his .871 save percentage, which he is sporting so far this season. That’s good enough for 40th in the league. And that is simply not good enough.
Of the nine goaltenders that played more than 10 post season contests last season, only one of them sported a save percentage below .918 thorough the playoffs. It was Braden Holtby. And nobody is lining up to accuse Holtby of being the reason that the Washington Capitals keep coming up short come post season time. But people will line up to accuse Andersen, if he cannot hold up his end of the deal. And he will clearly need to be better to withstand the expectations of post season glory for the Leafs this season.
In overtime and the shootout
Toronto’s 1-8 record in the shootout last year will also be a topic of discussion this year. Especially if the Leafs don’t improve in the one-on-one skills competition. This is an area that the goaltender has a chance to steal a point from his team. The expectation with the guns Toronto has up front, that they should be able to go at least .500 this season. Anything less would be considered a failure. That one also falls on the shoulders of Andersen. After all, if Toronto had won four more points last season entering the playoffs, they would have avoided The Capitals in the first round. It would have meant a second place finish in the Atlantic. And their playoff run may have looked very different.
Toronto should also be able to improve on their 6-7 record in overtime a year ago. As the open ice will give lots of space for Toronto’s skilled players to make plays. But in a situation that often becomes about surrendering chances to create ones of your own. The game again will come down to Andersen buy time for his club. If he can buy enough of it, the offense will have time to strike and get the win.
If he can do that on a regular basis, Toronto is going to win a lot of games this year. And next year. And the year after. Nobody will want to see the Leafs come April. Perhaps then, maybe, just maybe, Torontonians can start to plan the parade.
WASHINGTON, DC – April 15: Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen (31) takes a drink during a break in the second overtime against the Washington Capitals on April 15, 2017, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. in Round 1 of the NHL Playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals, 4-3 in the second overtime. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)