The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending was sporadically great this season, including in the post-season. They have a potential top-ten goalie in Frederik Andersen, had excellent backup goaltending from veteran Curtis McElhinney, and they have two of the best goaltenders in the AHL in Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard. With a glut of netminders looking for NHL games next season, the Maple Leafs will need to make some decisions this summer.
Toronto Maple Leafs Goaltending Decisions To Be Made
Frederik Andersen Will Still Be The Starter
Andersen stole the show in Games 5 and 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs loss against the Boston Bruins. He looked far worse than average in Game 7. He didn’t fair very well early in the series either, being pulled in Game 2. Andersen is well on his way to being known as a streaky goaltender.
In both seasons for the Maple Leafs, Andersen had rough Octobers. In his first season, the rough start may have been due to his moving from sunny California to Toronto. The contrast in pressure and recognition between Anaheim and Toronto may have had an impact too. That doesn’t explain last year’s difficult start for Andersen though. How he fairs in October next season could determine his long-term fate in Toronto.
There is a lack of confidence in Andersen right now amongst fans, and possibly Leaf management, but it’s not unanimous. Getting off to a great start in the 2018 season will give Andersen a lot of breathing room. If he struggles early next season, the questions will begin to circulate and may not stop short of a Stanley Cup win or a ticket out of town. Is Frederik Andersen the right man for the job? We may not know for a while yet.
McElhinney Should Not Return As Backup
McElhinney played his role as backup goalie very well last season. He finished the season with an 11-5-1 record, much better than you might expect from a typical backup goaltender. McElhinney is a well-prepared veteran. He can, and did, go long stretches without playing. There’s no need to worry about him needing to shake the rust off.
His experience as a veteran allowed Andersen to play 66 games with no pressure to perform from hungry young players looking to earn their own ice time. Both of those things may have worked against Andersen this season.
Andersen played a lot of games this season. Tuukka Rask as a comparison played 12 fewer games with 54. Had Andersen played fewer games down the stretch, could he have been a little fresher for the series against Boston? It’s one potential reason for his drop off in play. Mike Babcock had a very straightforward system this past season. Andersen will play every game but the second game of back-to-backs. That system may need to change to allow Andersen more rest and to give Sparks and Pickard more chances to play.
Some internal competition can also help starting goaltenders stay in peak form. The pressure from a backup can be good motivation. McElhinney does not provide that motivation, but a younger player would.
The Leafs Need A Sparks
McElhinney still has one year remaining on his contract, but it’s only worth $850,000. He could easily be traded to someone looking for depth goaltending. Short of that, he could be sent down to the AHL and kept for the Leafs own depth in case of injury. Either way, the Maple Leafs should be looking to bring in Sparks as Andersen’s back up next season.
Sparks led the AHL in wins, goals against average, and save percentage last season. At 24 years old, there is little point in keeping him in the AHL for further grooming. He’s earned his chance to see series time in the NHL. Normally you don’t want to see young players not playing, whether it’s a skater being a healthy scratch or a goaltender dressing as backup night in and night out. For Sparks to avoid that, Babcock will need to change the way he utilizes his goaltenders.
If Babcock is willing to play his backup more, Andersen will get less work and ideally be more prepared for the post-season, and Sparks will get enough playing time to continue his development and show the Maple Leafs what he’s capable of.
Could There Be A Controversy
It’s not likely there will be controversy this season unless Andersen is terrible and Sparks is great. Andersen will probably put up similar numbers next season as the last couple, meaning a save percentage around .918 (which was his save percentage in both his seasons with the Maple Leafs so far). If Andersen can maintain his overall play without the swoons into mediocrity, no one will question his role. But if he continues to have patches of trouble, there will be more and more questions about whether or not he will be capable of leading the Maple Leafs through four rounds of playoff hockey.
If he does falter, or continue to have trouble in the playoffs, the Leafs could look to move him before his contract expires. He has three years left at a $5 million cap hit. It’s far to early to know which way things will go, but the right move for the Maple Leafs next season is to bring Sparks up as the backup and play him 25 games or so.
A Victim Of The Numbers Game
After Anderen, Sparks, and McElhinney, the Maple Leafs still have Pickard. Pickard has a respectable .913 save percentage in 87 NHL games. More goaltending depth is always better. Pickard, who is only 26, will have a chance to steal the backup role from Sparkes next September. Short of that, he’ll likely be looking at a starting role in the AHL next season, with McElhinney as his back up.
The Maple Leafs may be considering a trade to improve their defence corps this off-season. Pickard, or even Sparks, may be part of a package, depending on how valuable another team finds them. The Maple Leafs should be reluctant to trade either of them unless they are key to acquiring a top-four defenseman. But there will not be many trade partners that are willing to trade relatively unproven goaltending for established defensemen.
It’s more likely the Leafs will trade one of them if one, or both of them, are able to further establish a foothold in the NHL. The Maple Leafs have had two goalies with high potential before in Rask and Justin Pogge. When the Maple Leafs traded Rask to Boston in 2006, it was with the expectation that both would turn into solid NHL goaltenders. It quickly became clear that only one was an NHL goaltender, a great one at that, and the Leafs found they had traded the wrong one. If they want to avoid a similar situation with Sparks and Pickard, they should keep them both as long as possible. Even though that means one of them at least will be playing most of next season in the AHL.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 10: Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for play to resume against the Ottawa Senators during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 10, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Senators 6-3.