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One-goalie team: How did we get here?

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The Leafs have never really been sure about this goalie idea.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ancient History

I confess that I don’t have every Leafs draft pick memorized. So when I fired up Hockey-Reference.com to see exactly how many goalies the Leafs had drafted, I was expecting a long list of names of guys I’d never heard of.

Goalies drafted since 2001 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

Draft Year Round Overall Name Age Amateur Lg. GP W L T/O SV%
Draft Year Round Overall Name Age Amateur Lg. GP W L T/O SV%
2001 7 213 Jan Chovan 18 OHL
2002 3 74 Todd Ford 18 WHL
2004 3 90 Justin Pogge 18 WHL 7 1 4 1 0.844
2005 1 21 Tuukka Rask 18 389 200 123 47 0.922
2006 4 99 James Reimer 18 WHL 253 107 92 28 0.915
2008 6 158 Grant Rollheiser 19 BCHL
2011 7 190 Garret Sparks 18 OHL 17 6 9 1 0.893
2013 6 172 Antoine Bibeau 19 QMJHL 2 1 1 0 0.927
2016 3 62 Joseph Woll 18 USHL

I got a short list instead.

This begins the tale of how we got here. The Leafs don’t draft goalies very often, and when they do, they rarely pick them in a high round. Both Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks have to be considered hits just by virtue of the fact they have played NHL time at all considering when they were drafted. But it has to be asked: on how many teams would those games have never happened?

Although they went 12 years between venturing into the turbulent waters of the third round to draft a goalie, the Leafs hit the jackpot twice ever in this period. That is the bigger surprise.

You don’t have to draft your goalie. You certainly don’t have to draft your backup, but having more to choose from in your system means spending less of your other resources on buying them.

But that was then, and the puppet strings have been cut on the old regime. The new world order started in 2015, and the only draft pick that counts is the one since then.

Recent History

Since 2015, the Leafs have done a lot of things with the goalies.

The Leafs got their starter who the coach likes, the team likes and, since about November 1, the fans like.

Frederik Andersen was the new regime’s first and only big buy. He was the first and only player the team spent a first-round pick on in a trade. They definitively chose him over Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, two very expensive backups who have been called on to play as starters for key portions of their teams’ seasons this season.

The Leafs found a free agent to sign in Kasimir Kaskisuo, and he rounds out the minor league talent very well. He’s made a very positive first impression on the Marlies in the last few days.

They drafted Joseph Woll, a young prospect who hasn’t done anything except make that pick seem like a worthwhile try at a third round hit.

And then the Leafs went shopping for a backup for Andersen.

Backup Revolving Door

We don’t know all the players the Leafs looked at or tried to sign, but we do know they tried to get Chad Johnson and couldn’t make a deal happen. The Leafs spent the summer being cagey about who they were looking at, which is as it should be, and in the end, out of a very limited pool once Johnson went to Calgary, they chose Jhonas Enroth.

This was a mistake. And it’s not one they are likely to make again. I don’t think the choice was wrong in terms of the man’s own record or playing style or anything about him that was revealed in hindsight by his play, but he never had the confidence of his coach. He was never going to get it.

I think the (funny) things Mike Babcock has said about goalie size have been taken by many to be the sum total of his understanding or knowledge of goalies. I don’t presume to know what he thinks, but the size bias sure seems to be a genuine part of it, even once you go beyond the jokes.

Here’s what I think. Both of the following statements are wrong:

Goalies have to be big, the bigger the better.

Size doesn’t matter, only skill.

In net, given a base level of competency well below what gets you a starter’s job in the AHL, size can make you a reasonable-seeming NHL goaltender. At least some of the time. The better you are, the higher your size advantage will take you.

Conversely, if you aren’t very big, a lot of skill can also make you an NHL goaltender.

So once the Leafs admitted that Enroth was a bust for them and always would be, and their greatest failure this year was taking too long to get there, they went shopping for options.

They started in their own back yard, and Antoine Bibeau ended up in net in the NHL a few times and looked largely plausible. Some of the time.

The problem was he stayed large, but he didn’t get any better, and he isn’t good enough for more than emergency use right now. He was given two starts. Once against Colorado, the worst team in the league, and once against Tampa, who were almost as injury plagued as they are now.

The Blue Jackets put Curtis McElhinney on waivers, and the case was closed. He was the backup.

Curtis McElhinney

There are few players in hockey who get more universal reports of their basic goodness as people than McElhinney. Never a bad word spoken is literally true about him. No matter what happens with the Leafs in the near future or the long term, he will not be the cause of any drama or controversy.

One of his best qualities as a backup is that he can go in to the net at a moment’s notice and he works very hard to produce at his peak ability. He makes up for his deficiencies in skill, not just with his size, but with how hard he works.

He has to work hard. Because the skill is just not there.

He has played ten games for the Leafs: Ottawa, Philadelphia, Dallas (twice), Columbus, Carolina, Anaheim, Florida, New Jersey and Buffalo.

That is a much tougher list than Bibeau’s, but it does predominantly skew towards teams lower than the Leafs in the standings. Which is what a backup is usually for, after all, playing the lesser team on a back-to-back. His all-situations save percentage in just the time he was on the ice in Toronto is .919.

His career all-situations save percentage is .906. He’s had 92 percent seasons before this one, but none where his games played got up over 20. The inference that his results will decline with a tougher work load comes naturally.

If he is performing well enough as a backup this year, he is not the sort of backup that can come along and play every game for weeks on end, like Jonathan Bernier is doing for Anaheim, saving their season.

He’s paid accordingly for what he does do, and it’s hard to complain about him when settling the issue of backup was a real need and he’s filled it. I would never choose to re-sign him, and I have never seen rebounds like his in an NHL rink outside of AHL games at the ACC, but he’s done what was asked of him.

Who Else is There?

There are three NHL-contracted goalies in the minor leagues, and Garret Sparks is the only one who has played more than two games in the regular season. He has two AHL games under his belt post his most recent injury break, unexpectedly playing both parts of a back-to-back this weekend. He allowed one goal in the two games combined.

He has the best historical and current season record in the AHL of any of the three. And there was a report that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello were watching on Sunday, which isn’t that rare of a thing. Lamoriello goes to a lot of Marlies’ home games.

However, Sparks’ NHL record is right up there in that table, and it isn’t good. His experience might win him a backup job to McElhinney if it’s necessary. But the same can be said of Bibeau.

The other choices are Bibeau, who has played very poorly at times since he’s returned to the AHL and Kaskisuo, who has barely any AHL experience.

What Now?

This is where we are. There are limited options if Andersen is going to miss time.

It might be easy to say the Leafs should have put more resources into dealing with their historic goalie deficit sooner, but considering they are right now almost a cap team, and will have bonus overages carry over to next year that seem to frighten some people, maybe it’s fair to ask: what resources? And use them on whom?

We might be having a different conversation right now if the Leafs had chosen to take on someone else’s overpaid backup at the deadline. I liked the idea of those deals. But given that the Leafs—sit down for this one—are not actually contenders this year, spending to have a near-starter as backup when you’ve only just popped the hatch on your tank seems a foolish idea even in hindsight.