Envision, if you will, a company of soldiers. A band of brothers united by a single purpose, heroically fixed on the victory and salvation of all they hold dear. Imagine the interplay of the personalities and skillsets, the feeling out and smoothing over of differences, the selfless collaboration as each puts the good of all over his personal glory.
Also one of the guys is called Fred and he has a giant bomb with him and if he drops it everybody dies.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are actually just a bunch of dudes playing a sport and not a war, sorry, have had some ups and downs in their goaltending history. For much of my childhood, the Leafs would pick up goaltenders who were about 75 years old but who had once been very good and usually still were, like Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour. After that, uh, things got dark. John Ferguson Junior made the infamous Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft trade, which may still legitimately be the worst trade in franchise history, and some teams that were better than you may remember got submarined by legitimately awful goaltending from Raycroft, Jonas Gustavsson, and most memorably, Vesa Toskala. Let’s go to the tape!
I want to die!
Things went on like that until the miraculous rise of James Reimer, followed by the rise of Jonathan Bernier, and the two of them traded off as 1B-type goalies for a couple of years while one slumped and then the other behind defence to make a sieve look solid. The team sucked through pretty much this entire period. Why do I watch sports?
Anyway, in 2016 our GM Lou Lamoriello traded for Frederik Andersen and immediately signed him to a five-year extension. At the time I said it was going all-in on a pair of sevens—a decent hand but a big bet. The bet paid. The Leafs got three years of quality starting goaltending, enough that Freddie hung around the top ten of the NHL without ever quite getting to Vezina territory. The point was, he didn’t drop the bomb and blow us all up. As someone who has frequently been exploded in the past, I really do appreciate that.
Freddie Andersen has a GSAx of -11.1 this year, which ranks 34th among goaltenders who have seen above 1,000 unblocked shots. Despite the fact that Freddie was quite good for stretches earlier this season, the overall numbers are dire. He’s been struggling pretty considerably for about six weeks now—since January 1st, he’s allowed ten more goals than expected in eleven games, with a minor injury in the middle that is now apparently healed. That’s an arbitrary cutoff for everything except the way most of the world keeps dates, but if you’re wondering why most of the Toronto fanbase currently wants to set itself on fire even more than it usually does, that recent trend gets to it.
Bad starting goaltending is fatal. If it goes long enough it will wipe out, in this order: your record, your head coach, and your GM. This is a league, remember, where even the best teams win about 60-65% of the time; the margins are simply too tight to survive. If Freddie Andersen keeps allowing goals on 11% of the shots against him, he might lose his starting job to Jack Campbell, but the damage will probably already be too great for the Leafs to win a tight playoff race. This whole year will feel like a waste of time, Auston Matthews will win the Rocket Richard and no one will care, and we’ll spend an off-season bickering tensely about who ought to be the starter next year.
On this site, though, we try to think rationally and to reason out how our team should solve its problems. Frederik Andersen and his goalie coach, Steve Briere, have to work through whatever technical kinks might be causing Freddie to leave the five-hold open like a barn door; that’s beyond most of our understanding and any of our control. What can a progressive, modern-minded, proactive front office do to address this situation?
What The Leafs Can Do To Address The Situation
Oh Fuck, Really?
Like, Nothing At All?
The most obvious thing for Kyle Dubas to do, he already did. He might have waited a bit long and paid a bit much to do it, but he got Jack Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings. Jack Campbell looks like he could be a decent backup, ideally for the next two-plus years, and he’s had a nice few games for the Leafs to start. Neat! Seems like a delightful guy, too, which is always a good thing in a backup.
Prior to the trade that brought him to a place where my Twitter feed could properly adore him, Campbell played twenty games for the Kings this year. xG says he allowed eleven goals more than expected and was somewhat below average. Last year, though, he was great; well above average. But then, so was Freddie. (If you want a fun factoid: both xG and GSAA say Campbell was better than Alexandar Georgiev last year.) Sergei Bobrovsky was one of the best goalies on the planet for a few years; this year, with a huge paycheque in hand, he’s been awful. Carey Price has flirted with being the worst contract in the league at times a couple of years after he won the Hart Trophy.
The only certainty you really get in goaltending is the painful certainty when the ebbs and flows stop and you realize those numbers won’t be coming back up again. Michael Hutchinson got to that point this year, where his previous passable mediocrity ended and he dropped to disaster levels. After that it’s a crapshoot. It leads to hockey nihilism. We should be able to get decent goaltending out of Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell for the rest of the way, but we might not. And if we don’t, nothing else this team does is going to matter.
Did you get this far without wanting to scream about the defence?
The Leafs’ defence is less than terrific, there is no doubt. Jake Muzzin is our old faithful, but even he’s not perfect. Travis Dermott can own a third pair and it’s not clear whether he can do more than that. Justin Holl might be a sixth defenceman or a fourth, depending on the day. Our callow teens, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, have done well in their limited work, but they can’t be expected to steer the ship when both of them are rookies. Tyson Barrie is [ed. note—several thousand words of swearing have been deleted.]
Here’s the thing: as bad as all that is, the Leafs have been a pretty respectable defensive team under Sheldon Keefe.
I know. Sometimes they miss defensive assignments where they appear to be drunk. Sometimes they make passes where they appear to be drunk. Sometimes their overall showing makes me want to get drunk. But whether it’s just that they’ve gotten to the offensive zone more lately, they’ve been an average (15th in the NHL at 5v5, 1st—not a typo—at 4v5) team in expected goals against since Keefe came in. Those numbers probably overrate them a bit. But as bad as they might look or seem they haven’t been bad enough to cause the goaltending we’ve seen.
People will do almost anything to avoid that conclusion. Some of it is an understandable willingness not to blame everything on one or two players. Some of it is ingrained hockey reluctance to blame your goalie because that simply isn’t done. I honestly believe some of it is shying away from the realization in the back of all of our heads: if the goalie really can’t get us a save, nothing the rest of the team does really matters and the whole exercise is more or less pointless. The rest of the soldiers can do whatever they want but if the bomb goes off, they will nonetheless be sprinkled all over in itty bitty pieces.
As fans that is not fun to think about. Of all the many miseries the Leafs have visited upon me—and not to brag or anything but I’m kind of an expert at this point—goaltending despair is the worst. I genuinely think most fans would prefer to conclude that the team just doesn’t care, that they’re soft and indifferent, that the Leafs need to trade Nylander for a 4D, than to reckon with the degree to which a few missed saves can ruin you. And even seemingly good goalies can stop making those saves without warning, just from the variance of the position.
What The Leafs Can Do, Part II
Of course, it’s not quite nothing the Leafs can do in the long term. Ideally you keep a strong goalie pipeline with at least some kind of third-string option; when Michal Neuvirth proved too hurt to play and Michael Hutchinson turned out to be too washed, we were kind of up a creek at second string. Aside from the obvious conclusion that we should stop getting goalies named Mike, all you can do is try to keep a steady supply of goalies into the system and hope one or two of them turn out.
It probably doesn’t make sense to try and buy certainty at starting goalie, because that’s almost impossible. You definitely don’t want to overpay for it, if you can avoid it. At the same time, of course, if you’re totally exposed in net, you’re screwed. Running teams is hard.
Those, though, are big picture moves. Now, over the last 24 games, the Leafs have to go with the bigger sample and trust that Freddie Andersen is still a good goalie. He probably is, and regression to the mean should bear that out. Maybe Campbell gets blazing hot and steals his job, as stated, but it would be a while before we were sure of that and maybe too late. Really, we’re going to dance with the one that brung us. If Andersen isn’t up to it, neither is our team.
That’s hockey for you. Hope the rest of the team can keep it together, tighten up where possible, and keep producing. Improve by trade if one makes sense for now and the future.
And don’t blow us up, Fred.