October is the cruellest month, or so says Frederik Andersen. The new guy wants to make a big entrance, grab everyone's attention and be heralded as the hero, but you don't always get what you want.
Andersen's October got him attention, but it wasn't of the good kind. Everyone had questions and opinions on what went wrong as he let in goal after goal, and the Leafs lost game after game.
What I didn't like about most of this analysis was that it used only his goals against—the failures, not the successes. Just looking at all his shots against wasn't what I wanted either. I wanted to examine his preparation during opposing offensive pressure as well.
I wanted video review. I watched all of his October games, fast forwarding through all the fun offensive action and only watching the play in the Leafs defensive zone. I likely missed some things. I likely saw things that weren't there. People do that; we look with our own biased eyes. I can't claim great expertise on goalie technique either, but I wanted to see what he was doing and what had changed.
Before I tell you what I think I saw, I do want to cover some terminology:
To avoid concerns over whose left or right I'm talking about, I usually refer to the action as stick-side or glove-side, and high or deep.
Full butterfly means both of the goalie's legs are on the ice. Partial butterfly means the goalie isn't all the way down yet.
Now the hard one: VH and reverse VH or rVH.
Obviously, you know that VH is this:
Okay it isn't really. If you want a detailed overview of the two modern goaltending variations on the butterfly, I think this video from Cory Schneider is absolutely fantastic, and a lot of what he talks about plays right into what Andersen went through in his October troubles.
In brief, both of these positions are about playing tight to the post.
VH, or Vertical-Horizontal, simply means that the leg beside the post is vertical and the other one is flat on the ice. The goalie takes up more space in this configuration, and on the glove side post, the glove hand is higher, and the space exposed high-glove is smaller.
rVH simply means the goalie’s legs are in the opposite configuration. The leg nearest the post is flat, and the skate blade is tight to the post. The other leg is sort of vertical, more lapped over the first one. The goalie covers up less of the net this way, but the payback for that is the push off the post means much more rapid lateral coverage of the net.
Lateral coverage is very important. A shot that comes after a cross-ice pass in front of the goalie is much more likely to score than one from the same place that was not preceded by a pass.
The rise in popularity of rVH goes hand-in-hand with very large bodied goalies, increased athleticism and flexibility and the post technology used now which allows that push off the post.
Andersen uses rVH extensively. This is his stick-side version.
Note the stick in "paddle-down" configuration, and the tight seam against the post. His use of rVH emerged as an important theme in this review.
We begin at the beginning: the Leafs first game of the season in Ottawa.
October 12 at Ottawa. The game was a 5-4 overtime loss. The Leafs scored two goals in the first, as did Ottawa, then scored two more in the second to Ottawa's one. The Senators tied the game late in the third.
Shots on Goal: 30 Saves: 25
There are some aspects of Andersen's game that never changed and were always good, so I will dispense with them now:
- He is excellent at tracking the puck as it moves behind the net. He moves from post to post in full butterfly very well, and he is never out of position or surprised.
- He squares to the shooter at all times. He does not lose the puck in traffic, and he's too big to screen very effectively.
- He is always in the game. He does not ever look like he's not focusing or not tracking the play.
There are some things that are simply part of who he is:
- He is not a freeze the puck goalie. He puts it in play.
- He gives up rebounds. He makes a lot of saves off of his pads, and he has had varying levels of success in directing those pucks to the corners, to players, or away from the opposition.
- He handles the puck a lot, and he can pass deep up-ice into the neutral zone with accuracy.
One of the major plot points of his settling in story is his puck handling. In Ottawa, he would go behind the net, and then his choice was freeze the puck on his stick for the defender to retrieve or pass it to them.
The defenders did not act like they expected passes; Andersen couldn't decide what to do with it, as they kept coming in very deep. Sometimes both defenders would come all the way behind the net to set up the play while he was already there with the puck. Nikita Zaitsev almost ran into him once, as he came around behind to play the puck.
Andersen likes to come out to challenge a shooter. Not just on a one on one, or a breakaway, but whenever a shooter is carrying the puck in. He will come out to the top of the paint or just beyond, square up and then back up as the shooter comes forward. He is very good at maintaining position on the shooter, but in this game he was not dropping to butterfly to make saves as fast as he needed to be.
He was always dropping right into rVH when the puck was deep, hesitating in a partially upright, hugging the post pose only once when the puck was at the half-boards on the glove side.
If the Leafs played this game now, they'd win it 6-2. But of all of the October games, this loss might be almost all on Andersen for being a bit rusty and slow. No real training camp will do that to you.
October 15 at home vs Boston. This was a 4-1 win where the Leafs scored three times in the first to Boston's one, and then added one in the early part of the third period.
Shots on Goal: 25 - Saves: 24
Whoever the Bruins have become early this season by dominating the stat charts, they were not there yet in this game.
While the Bruins were on a change, Andersen came out to dish the puck up to Jake Gardiner, who dumped it back in the defensive zone — total miscommunication and a lost opportunity to transition against a team in disarray.
Defenders were still coming very deep when he had the puck frozen behind the net instead of taking a pass. They looked and like they weren't playing the same game.
He came way out of his net to knock the puck up-ice off the boards to negate the Bruins offence and it worked, but it looked risky. He did it a second time in a way that failed.
This was the first game where Andersen was trying to ring the puck around the boards from in behind the net. Bypassing the defenders, he's trying to give it to the forwards. They were either unable to handle the pass or just got tied up in board battles they couldn't win.
Positioning and Pressure in Deep
Andersen was standing up again in this game as the play came along the boards on either side. He was dropping in time, but this was also a much easier game than the first one with few shots that weren't just simple shots from easy to save locations.
He was doing a lot of side-to-side tracking deep. The Bruins play from below the goal line a lot, and he was doing that just fine.
The only Bruins goal was the first of what will become the classic Leafs goal against as this story goes on. Cross ice and high to low passes are used to pull Andersen out of position and open up the net.
The puck is brought in glove side, and Andersen comes out beyond the paint to square up to shooter. The puck is passed just inside the blue line to stick-side corner, and Andersen struggles to square up to new shooter but he gets there.
There are four Leafs and four Bruins and very, very few passing lanes are blocked here. Connor Carrick takes out one by going down to block it, but he essentially has three Bruins to cover on his own. Peter Holland is nowhere near anyone, and Connor Brown isn't deep enough to even prevent a cross-ice pass.
No one has David Pastrnak, who you can see above as the top-most Bruin, already moving deep to the stick-side corner behind the dropping Carrick. Andersen, who always plays square to the shooter—John-Micheal Liles at the far left of the picture—cannot move fast enough back to the post to prevent that easy shot from Pastrnak, who ends up with the whole glove side of the net open as Andersen swings around to cover the new angle.
The Near Goals
There were a few other close calls in this game, including a sprawling save Andersen made on a play where a rebound goes right to a Boston player, as well as another quick save off a misplayed rebound by Zaitsev.
October 19 at Winnipeg. This is a 5-4 overtime loss where the Leafs score two in the first, two in the second, and then give up five straight goals.
Shots on Goal: 34 - Saves: 29
Where are Andersen's Feet?
A new storyline starts in this game very early in the first period. He made a routine lateral move, skating—that is propelling himself while in partial butterfly—to the stick-side, and he ended up with his right foot outside the post, not inside. He could not get into the usual rVH position.
I counted seven times where his foot, usually the right, slipped off the post either inside or outside, and he could not push off to move or make a clean seal to the post. Most of this problem was in the early part of the game where, while the Leafs were scoring goals, they were also giving up a lot of chances.
Playing the Puck
Andersen was smooth playing the puck, but the defenders were still coming very deep. It was not getting them any advantage or facilitating transition, but at least no one was running into anyone or confused over who was going to take it.
There was a classic passing play goal against in this game where Andersen, because he is out to take the shooter, cannot push off a post to move laterally, but must skate over. Carrick is the culprit again doing nothing to take away the pass or the second player's shooting lane on a two on one. Andersen cannot make the save.
Another goal begins with a play off of the faceoff that is a pass, uncontested by the Leafs, that forces Andersen to move laterally, and he cannot get there for it. Bad defensive positioning and some problems on his original position on the faceoff were both at fault.
Andersen was beat at least once in this game by a very good shooter he was squared up to in time. The criticism of this kind of play is that he is going down into full butterfly too early, and the shots go high. This might have merit, but another way to look at it is: he's huge, and taking away the low shot leaves a shooter very little net to aim at. It's not clear to me if this is a failure in tactical choice or in execution or a little of both.
The tying goal in the game was a Patrik Laine shot after a pass where no Leafs defender had that passing lane covered in any way.
The winning goal was a clean win by Laine on a breakaway where Andersen had good positioning.
The Near Goals
Andersen made some saves in this game on shots following uncontested cross-ice passes that he barely got to. He also managed to survive his own issues with his foot placement.
This was a tough game against a team that plays a good system, while the Leafs failed to defend at the hockey 101 level at times. These defensive zone problems partly obscured that Andersen himself was not playing well, particularly in the first half of the game, and the Leafs seemed to never make the right decision while offensive pressure was on.
It wasn't so much that they blew a lead in this game, the surprise should be that they ever got that far out in front.
October 22 on the road vs. Chicago. The Leafs and Chicago traded goals, and the Leafs took a one goal lead into the third period. They scored in the third to make it 4-2, but gave up two goals late in the game. Chicago won it 5-4 in a shootout.
Shots on Goal: 35 - Saves: 31
At least five times Andersen had problems getting his feet on the post, either while backing up or dropping down. In one case he had to feel around with his glove hand to find the post and get his leg in the right spot before he could drop.
Andersen and the team were more in sync, although some of Andersen's choices seemed odd. Heat of the moment, split-second decisions can seem odd when you freeze frame a play. But the Leafs generally have trouble at their own blue line, and he was placing the puck right in that spot for forwards, and it did not help a lot of the time.
There were a lot of them. In a couple of cases there was sloppy play by everyone. While Andersen was tracking the puck fine, he was not moving well and struggling with his feet in more ways than just knowing where the goalpost was.
This goal could have been repeated multiple times in the first part of the game:
The puck carrier undresses Nazem Kadri on a two on two, coming in stick side. Andersen has him square and dead to rights just outside the top of the paint. The shooter is right on the faceoff dot and is a righty, so Andersen has a lot of angle to cut down. It is hard to criticize this aggressive position. It's not a shot; it's a pass, which three Leafs players, including Kadri who has caught up to shooter, cannot disrupt because none of them are in the passing lane. Andersen tries to skate over, but can never get there in time.
For the tying goal, Jonathan Toews was allowed to step in behind the defender and take up a position at Andersen's stick hand, play the puck, wait for a tip-in and generally ensure that the puck moved around to someone in scoring position. In that extended play the defensive coverage was late to get into position since the entire Bozak-van Riemsdyk-Marner line had assumed the defender had the puck under control and had started to leave the zone on a breakout, just as they’d tried to do two times before.
The coaching decision to have the Tyler Bozak line go out for the faceoff right after the goal scored by Chicago to make it 4-3, seems very odd. With less than three minutes on the clock, Chicago pulled the goalie, making it a power play they had to defend, and they didn’t seem to know that was what they were doing.
The Near Goals
There were a lot of them. Much more so than in the Winnipeg game. This game could have been 5-3 Chicago after two periods.
Andersen was not good in this game, however. He gave up huge uncontrolled rebounds, had lost his spatial awareness, and was struggling to get to shots for the entire game.
He played in VH on the glove side at least once when the puck was on the half-boards. There were two earlier occasions where he might have done this, but the video view was not good enough to tell. VH on the glove side cuts down the high-glove area for a shooter, remember, and his goals against were all coming high, mostly high-glove.
October 25 at home vs Tampa. The Leafs lost this one 7-3 after Tampa was up 4-0 halfway in.
Shots on Goal: 24 - Saves: 17
This game was a disaster of footwork and positioning. He almost knocked the net off while standing upright at one point. All of his previous bobbles, which he had been able to battle through, came to a head, and he didn't seem to have any idea of where he was in relation to the net.
Imagine you're doing something you do all the time, like drive your car, and suddenly you reach for the gear shift and miss. That's what he was like for the entire game.
At one point, even with his leg by the post in good position, he was jigging his other leg around like he didn't like how he was standing.
The Leafs got mauled by Tampa physically in this game. Andersen, trying to jump start their rushes with passes out to forwards along the boards was doing something that should have helped, but it was like throwing a catnip mouse to a tabby in a room full of tigers. The surprising thing is that while his world was literally off-kilter, his passing was totally fine, even if the decision making was suspect.
If you leave Victor Hedman standing alone on the stick-side circle twice in a row, you deserve to get scored on. If you do it again five minutes later with Nikita Kucherov on the other side of the ice, you really deserve it.
The Leafs got done over in the brain department worse than they were done over by brawn. Stephen Stamkos and Kucherov played a cute little set play that was likely more complicated than they needed. The Leafs watched them score.
The only goal that was really all on Andersen was number seven and by then, who could care if he let one in.
The Near Goals
There weren't many. Tampa rarely had the puck, and when they did they scored.
Andersen was terrible in this game, shaky, out of position, over compensating by trying to really aggressively meet shooters, and his team proved the Chicago game was not the worst they could play.
At this point it is worth mentioning that the shooters who were beating Andersen and the Leafs defenders in these three really bad games are quite a list:
Laine (3), Sheifele, Anisimov (2, while playing with Panarin), Motte and Panik (both set up by Keith and Campbell), Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, etc. etc. through the Lightning top nine and ending with Jonathan Drouin.
October 27 at home to Florida. The Leafs won this one 3-2, holding that lead through the entire third period.
Shots on Goal: 31 - Saves: 29
They were fine. Not a single problem in the game.
VH or Not?
There was a pattern in this game of Andersen using either VH on the glove side, or just hugging the post while semi-upright. It seemed to offer him more flexibility to decide if he wanted to drop to VH, rVH, full butterfly, or to skate upright to a new position as he tracked the play.
The Panthers played behind the goal line a lot, and he is good at that, looked comfortable, and he had no mobility or timing issues. When the puck was really deep on the glove side, Andersen used an rVH position, but the more upright stance when it was out along the half-boards worked well in this game.
He made a great ring around the boards play that led to transition as well as one pass that led to him needing to make a save. This game presented few opportunities to play the puck.
On one goal in this game, you can make the argument he went down too quick, but at the same time, he is taking the ice away and forcing a high shot.
The second goal was a Leafs classic. They should raise a banner to commemorate it.
Jaromir Jagr has the puck, and because he's a lefty, he has a lot of net to shoot at. Andersen is out to cut that down all he can. And the defender? Zaitsev, this time, is way too deep to do anything about the pass you could see coming from space. Andersen knows that's going to be a pass, and he throws himself to the stick-side to try to get the new angle covered, and there is no way. Easy goal.
The Near Goals
There was a cross ice pass in this game successfully disrupted by the defenders. It wasn't the first ever, it just felt like it.
October 29 on the road in Montréal. The Leafs had exactly the same shots allowed and Andersen the same saves as in the previous win, but they lost this one 2-1.
Shots on Goal: 31 - Saves: 29
Only one tiny bobble in this game that caused no trouble.
There were further refinements on the positional changes that appeared in the Florida game. Andersen was very effective at tracking the play and squaring to shooters, but he was choosing to come down into full butterfly or rVH, much later. He was also using VH extensively on the glove side when the puck was out at the half boards and a shot was possible. There were multiple examples of him using the hugging the post move and not dropping down right away.
Playing the Puck?
He made one clearing pass that the skater was not ready for that nearly caused a goal. Other than that, it was smooth sailing, and everyone seemed to be playing the same game finally.
The winning goal was a Shea Weber power play shot that the Habs played perfectly and no goalie would save.
The other goal, though, was an absolute epic of bad defensive choices that left Andersen with his usual choice: stick to the shooter or cheat to assume a pass. It went like this:
While the Leafs are on a slow line change, the Habs turn the puck over and pop a long lead pass right under Rielly’s nose to a forward who is now deep behind the Leafs, glove side with the puck. Andersen is out far beyond the paint, and he backs in following the shooter while a second Hab is on the stick side of the slot. The lone Leafs defender has inside position on that Hab, but he also has a guy riding his back.
So guess what happens?
The loose guy stick side moves in deeper with ease because both Leafs now in the zone move toward the man with puck, turning their backs on him. Andersen has the shooter dead to rights, and the pass (you knew there was going to be a pass across. I knew. Andersen knew.) goes through the completely open lane to the man coming in on the stick-side point unchecked, unnoticed, and with all the choices in the world to make once he has the puck. The loose guy is now at the stick-side corner of the net, camped out right in Toews’ spot because there was no one there to stop him.
Late to the party, Rielly tries to go down to block the passing lane back to the original glove-side puck carrier, but that's Alex Galchenyuk who had sailed in alone like Hedman before him, and he has the puck. He can score all by himself while two Leafs stand and watch: Matthews and Gardiner.
The loose guy by the net was Brendan Gallagher, and he was just decoration as it happened, so it's okay no one moved him out of there.
The pass went from near the front of the net way out to the stick side top of the circle. That's a lot of ice for Andersen to cover, and he was not back deep in his net, because the original shooter is a lefty, oh, and Alex Radulov as well, and he had a wide open undefended net to shoot at. Andersen had to come out and cut his angle. He could never have gotten over in time to stop the Galchenyuk shot any more than he got to every one the Leafs allowed Hedman from the same place.
The Near Goals
There were at least three correctly disrupted cross-ice passes. Carrick and Rielly both made good plays. Andersen was solid, easily as good as against Florida but with a much tougher quality of shots to deal with.
It's hard to dole out blame for a series of losses that all had one thing in common: a lot of goals against. It is really obvious that Andersen had problems, that they grew into a near total loss of positioning on the ice. It's also really obvious that the team in front of him hung him out to dry repeatedly.
In all of that mess, they worked out a system of puck handling and passing that will pay dividends in the future. They will transition faster and smother, and they will nullify opposition chances by just bypassing the onrushing forwards and sending the play back up ice.
Andersen has also clearly adjusted some of his play. He does not play every game the same, and will play deep in his net a lot for teams that like to get the puck below the goal line, but he is giving himself more options by not immediately dropping down when the puck is not deep.
However, he is who he is, and some of the adjustment has to come from the defenders. In the video above, Schneider talks about using VH even though it slows his lateral movement because he can rely on his defence. Andersen needs that same support.
The defenders also need to be doing rebound control and everyone needs to be in better position most of the time.
In these games, Andersen's headaches not of his own making were about 50 percent Nikita Zaitsev and twenty percent Connor Carrick. Both of these players have taken the biggest strides in their play since then, and that coincides exactly with losses turning into wins.
There were forwards who were better than others at defensive zone play, which is not news. Kadri's line were terrible in Chicago and usually reliable everywhere else. It is Matthews' and Bozak's line who are indecisive, cheating high, assuming a breakout is on when it's not, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rielly showed up making a few blunders early on, but taking his ice time in to consideration (something we should do for Zaitsev as well) and also recognizing how often he is part of the success defensively, he is well worth the occasional mistake.
The defensive play of the team, which is not the same thing as the play of the defencemen or the rate of shots against allowed, has already improved. It can get even better.
Andersen's small changes in tactics and execution seem to be bringing him success. But he isn't a ride the goal line guy. He's not going to make that dramatic cross-ice save every time. He has done it a lot, but he's had to try for it way too often.
Mike Babcock made a comment about showing Matthews video of Henrik Zetterberg and Toews so that he will eventually learn where to go in the defensive zone so the puck just comes to him. If he'd gone to the spot where he could have picked up that pass to Galchenyuk in the Montréal game, he would have been up-ice with the puck and the entire forward line of the Habs behind him.
That is the future. For now, just seeing a majority of opponents passes in the defensive zone handled well enough while Andersen plays his best is all we can ask for.