It’s fair to say that there are a lot more positive things to say about the Leafs these days than negative. The core of their team is shaping up nicely, with almost every key piece performing at or above expectations. The risky move for Frederik Andersen in the offseason has paid dividends so far, with solid play from the Dane. Found wallets like Nikita Zaitsev (KHL free agent signing), Zach Hyman (acquired rights for Greg McKegg), and Connor Brown (drafted in the 6th round in 2012, best Connor on his junior team I assume) have all become key contributors.
The Leafs front office wouldn’t be out to lunch if they felt a little smug right now. They’ve done a great job building up a really promising team.
However, there’s one part of the roster where the management group seems a little confused and desperate — backup goaltender. I’ve gone through all the transactions involving goalies the Leafs have made since the Andersen trade to see if I can string together what’s going on here.
July 8, 2016 - Leafs trade Jonathan Bernier to Ducks for conditional draft pick
Does it make sense: Yes. This is just the second part of the Andersen trade, but it needed to be delayed so Toronto could pay a bonus to Bernier as opposed to Anaheim. Babcock had lost faith in Bernier, and for a team that would be tight to the cap in the coming year, paying a combined $9M in cap hits to goalies this year is pretty unattractive. This opens up the backup role on the Leafs roster though, so now the team needs to fill it.
July 15, 2016 - Leafs re-sign Garret Sparks to a 1-year, $575k contract (two-way)
Does it make sense: Also yes. Sparks had a disastrous run with the Leafs in 2015/2016 (thanks for getting us Auston), but his numbers at the AHL level have always been solid. This allowed him to stay with the Marlies and compete with Antoine Bibeau for the starting role there, and for the Leafs to re-evaluate him for a year and see if he fits into their long-term plans.
August 22, 2016 - Leafs sign Jhonas Enroth to a 1-year, $750k contract (one-way)
Does it make sense: Still yes. Enroth has been a bit of a journeyman across his career, but he had put up some roughly league average seasons, and was coming off a very good one with the Kings. A very low risk deal from the Leafs that seemed to shore up the backup goaltending spot with a reliable guy who could relieve Andersen.
So far, this seems pretty good. The Leafs got their starter, and a cheap but reasonably effective backup. Unfortunately, Enroth was awful in his NHL time this year, sporting a putrid .872 save percentage. Of course, he’s not an .872 goalie, and it’s a ludicrously small sample. However, that small sample evidently lost the trust of Mike Babcock, resulting in...
Numerous times in December 2016 - Leafs call up Antoine Bibeau from the Marlies, send Jhonas Enroth down
Does it make sense: I’m lumping a lot of transactions together here, because the Leafs have done this a few times. They call up Bibeau to be the Leafs backup (occasionally taking starts) and send Enroth down, and when the Leafs have a break between games, they reverse the transaction so Bibeau can get more time with the Marlies.
As for whether it makes sense or not ... it depends on whether you Bibieve. Certainly, he has his fans. He famously backstopped his junior team to a Memorial Cup appearance, and for a lot of fans, seeing a young goalie prospect with any sort of promise gets them excited.
The problem is, he’s never performed particularly well at the pro level. His AHL numbers lag well behind teammate Garret Sparks’, who is only a year older. Now, it must be said that Sparks had a terrible NHL debut season, and his social media snafus have seemingly strained his relationship with the organization to the point that it seems unlikely he’ll suit up for the Leafs in the forseeable future.
So this is more about Bibeau’s merits relative to Enroth’s. And on that front, I don’t really see what evidence there is that he’s a better fit for the backup goaltender spot. To me, it seems like the Leafs didn’t want to use Enroth anymore (likely influenced by his poor play to start the year), and Bibeau was the only reasonable option left.
So they tried him and he performed... pretty well! His .927 save percentage in two games is definitely higher than I would’ve predicted. That said, given his mediocre pedigree, I wouldn’t expect that to continue. And to their credit, the Leafs seem to have realized that and attempted to rectify it. And as a result, we get...
January 10, 2016 - Leafs claim Curtis McElhinney off waivers from the Blue Jackets
Does it make sense: This move reeks of desperation to find someone, anyone who can play reasonable backup minutes for the Leafs. They find themselves in the middle of a playoff push. While the above transactions have been going on, Andersen has been playing the vast majority of games, and given the Leafs’ defensive frailties, also facing a lot of rubber. A backup goalie is typically not high on the list of a team’s priorities, but given the investment they made in Freddie, it makes sense to find a solution you feel comfortable using, and not overtaxing a goalie who hasn’t had much experience as a No. 1. In addition, the Leafs face the most back-to-backs in the league this year, making it even more important to have a competent backup.
That said... I don’t think the Leafs made a notable upgrade here. McElhinney is a 33-year-old goaltender who has a track record of being replacement level over his journeyman NHL career. He’s had good results with Columbus this year, but it looks like a massive outlier that isn’t really representative of what can be reasonably expected from him going forward. Unless you feel he’s turned a corner in his early 30s, I don’t see much separating him from Enroth (other than five inches of height).
Now, I should be clear that the Leafs don’t lose a lot from claiming McElhinney. He’s making almost nothing (though more than Enroth and Bibeau, so a few more bonus overages will carry into next season), and the Leafs just need SOMEONE to be a reliable backup. It’s clear they don’t trust Enroth and despite his NHL results, they apparently don’t trust Bibeau either. So McElhinney is the next guy up. His play will determine if he’s just another goalie in the carousel, or someone who Babcock feels he can rely on down the stretch. Meanwhile, Leafs fans just have to hope that Andersen stays safe.
January 11th, 2016 - Leafs trade Jhonas Enroth to Ducks for 7th round pick
Does it make sense: Uhh, this is odd. But yeah, sure, I guess. We got something for Enroth and replaced him with an older version of Enroth who isn’t 5’10”. So I guess it worked well. Side note: Does Anaheim know how waivers work? Regardless, this is a nice move to get something for an asset worth basically nothing. Obviously, 7th rounders generally don’t turn into much, but I’d rather have it than not. Meanwhile, the Leafs backup situation is still somewhat in flux. McElhinney seems to be the guy they’re rolling with for the time being. We’ll see what results that yields.
Ultimately, the last couple moves the Leafs made come down to McElhinney versus Enroth. Frankly, they’re not entirely dissimilar. They’re both journeyman goaltenders who have seen some successful seasons in recent history. There’s two key differences between them.
- McElhinney has been good this year, while in a similarly small sample, Enroth has been awful.
- As alluded to above, McElhinney is a more typical goaltender size, standing 6’3” - positively gargantuan compared to Enroth.
So this move is based on two things. The fact that the Leafs front office or coaching staff don’t trust Enroth, and the fact that Enroth has been awful this year while McElhinney hasn’t. Obviously, those two are related. While it’s easy to sit here and crow about sample size, I do empathize with the Leafs to some extent. It’s hard to watch your backup come in and give you no chance to win a game, and then trust him again. The life of backups is such that you’re always on the fringes. They don’t get a margin for error, and as such, they’re judge more on recency than perhaps any other position. And for any coach, if they judge you to not be trustworthy, they’re not going to play you.
So that’s how we end up where we are. It seems like a more or less lateral move to go from Enroth to McElhinney. But it’s really that the Leafs don’t trust the former, and hope they can trust the latter. Time will tell if they’re right, and the Leafs playoff hopes may depend on it.