Heading into the All-Star break, all was well with Frederik Andersen. He was on a two-game shutout streak, hadn’t really struggled at any point since the start of the season, and he had just broken into the top ten in the league in save percentage.
In the three games since the All-Star break, Andersen has been pulled once and let in five goals in each of his other two starts.
Now some questions are surfacing, primarily centering around his workload. Andersen has played 42 of the team’s 50 games so far. That is one game less than he played all of last season and 12 short of his career high — not just in the NHL, but in any professional season throughout his career.
Andersen is currently on pace to play 69 games in 2016-17. The most any goalie in the league played last season was Jonathan Quick at 68. The year before, four goalies played at least 69 games – Cory Schneider, Quick, Tuukka Rask, and Brayden Holtby. In 2013-14, Kari Lehtonen led all goalies with 65 appearances.
That is not to say it can’t be done. In 2013-14, Quick played 49 games; the next year, he played 72 and his save percentage improved. Similarly, Cory Schneider went from 45 games played to 69 the next season over those same two years. His save percentage also went up the second season. So it’s not unheard of to experience a big jump in games played and succeed under a heavier workload.
What compounds matters for the Leafs, though, is their schedule down the stretch. In the final 63 days of the regular season, Toronto will play 32 games, including 12 games in the final 21 days. This, for a goalie who has faced the second most shots against already in the league, playing behind a team that is tied for fourth last in shots allowed against per game.
Toronto picked up Curtis McElhinney to help ease the workload and he has appeared serviceable in his two starts so far. But McElhinney also has the worst 5v5 save percentage in the league since 2007-08 and he was legitimately bad last season (.890 sv%). Goaltending is a weird position — maybe he fits in as a Leaf and does well in his spot duty — but there isn’t much there that should give anyone in Toronto a warm and fuzzy feeling at the moment.
Maybe it’s a coincidence and Andersen is just going through a little dip in play that is not at all related to fatigue. But he’s surely going to play a career high in games this season, with a compact schedule down the stretch, on a team that gives up a lot of shots. Just last week we argued on MLHS that he is the team’s MVP to date. How Andersen holds up will be one of the major stories from here on out. Any dip in play will be a huge blow to the Leafs’ playoff chances.
– Noticed a little tweak on the PP units against Boston, with Kadri moving to the Bozak line unit alongside Marner and Bozak. That moved Connor Brown onto a unit with Matthews, Nylander, and Komarov. With Brown on the Bozak unit, it sometimes meant Brown in front, Bozak in the rover role, and JVR and Marner on the half-walls. With Kadri on that unit, he assumed the rover role, JVR went in front, and Bozak and Marner played the half-walls. The Leafs have a lot of talent to manage between their two units and it looks like those eight forwards have more or less locked in spots on PP, but their positions on it do shuffle around from time to time.
– Ray Ferraro noted that Babcock lost it on the bench after St. Louis made it 3-1 last Thursday. With a really young team that is generally exceeding expectations, one thing worth following will be how Babcock leads them through the ups and downs throughout the rest of the season. The St. Louis game was a poor showing from pretty well beginning to end, and it followed after a game that was over by the end of the first period (Dallas). The team was able to respond with a big win where they fought through a lot of adversity/demons the next time up.
– After Babcock lit up the bench when St. Louis made it 3-1, he responded by putting out the fourth line for an energy shift, and Nikita Soshnikov almost scored. The Leafs have started to use the fourth line in scenarios like that to get some energy and a forecheck going.
– That said, it’s tough to lose a game in the final minutes of regulation to the Flyers on the road with the fourth line and third pairing caught in their own zone. If you’re going to go down, go down with your best.
– Toronto elected to start Curtis McElhinney against the Flyers in the second half of the back-to-back, giving Frederik Andersen the Detroit game the night before. That has been the norm for the Leafs so far this season – Andersen gets the first game, they go for the win in that one, and the backup gets the second game, where they’ve had virtually no success. In the case of this back-to-back, the Flyers are much better than the Red Wings and the Leafs handled the Wings relatively smoothly, before losing Philly.
– Easy to forget due to the rookie seasons of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but at 18 years old William Nylander put up 20 points in 21 SHL games — a higher point-per-game average than Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, and Markus Naslund at that age. He was brought over to the Marlies for the second half of the season and piled up 32 points in 37 games. The next season, Nylander accumulated 45 points in 38 AHL games before getting the call up to the Leafs for good (not including AHL playoffs). Since then, he has 47 points in 71 NHL games. He turns 21 this year and has produced at a very high level at each stop of his career. He’s going to be a high-end player for a long time.
– Also not getting much attention: The Marlies have won six of their last eight and are now three points out of a playoff spot, with two games in hand on eighth-place St. John’s, who they just beat in back-to-back games. The Marlies have a +9 goal differential while the IceCaps are at -16. Recent waiver re-claim Seth Griffith has nine points in six games so far, and he’ll be a big contributor for them down the stretch. Andrew Nielsen is second in rookie goal scoring by a defenceman in the AHL with nine goals and 29 points in 44 games.
“First of all, our coach knows him extremely well. When you’ve had the opportunity to work with someone day in and day out, you certainly get the right reviews and recommendation. Size and strength. Has another year on his contract. He’s not a free agent after that. The age factor – he’s right in a perfect situation as far as what we’re looking for with our team to add someone.”
– Lou Lamoriello, on claiming Alexey Marchenko
It surprised me that Marchenko went on waivers from what I saw of him last season. He’s 25 now, so he isn’t exactly a prospect anymore, but he is built in the mould of the ‘new’ defensive defenseman — he is big and can grind but he moves the puck up ice well in transition. He can take a regular shift and is right-handed, which is a plus. He’ll be eligible for the expansion draft this summer, which makes that comment by Lamoriello about another year on his contract interesting.
“We expect him to drive a line for us. We expect him to be an elite, elite player. We think he can. He’s got a long way to go in his journey, but he’s playing hard and playing well. I thought he had good jump when he got with [Auston Matthews] last night, but I need him to have good jump when he’s not with [Matthews].”
– Mike Babcock, on Mitch Marner
I’ve shared a few quotes like this throughout the year. Babcock really believes in finding balance and knows he needs Marner to drive the Bozak line with JVR. It would still be nice to see Matthews with Marner a little more often.
“You can’t give up five goals in a game and expect to win… It seems like everybody’s trying to do too much, maybe. You try to do somebody else’s job and then you have two guys on the one guy and all of a sudden they have an odd-man rush. We know what the game plan is for every game. It’s on us (to fix) for sure.”
– Roman Polak, on the struggles of the Leafs defense
When Rielly went down, the usage and pairings got turned upside down and the whole defense, which was already a below-average unit, was thrown off kilter. The breakdowns in coverage have been glaring and the unit needs to be able to at least clean up things like over-committing and covering the wrong man down the stretch.
Video Tidbit of the Week
This shift didn’t get much attention on Saturday night, but it was a great example of the forechecking and cycling that the fourth line has been bringing to the table the last few weeks.
Fresh off of calling a timeout, Boston is trying to swing the game back in their favour. Babcock sends out his fourth line (this is something he is doing frequently now), and they get the puck in deep and go to work. Martin actually gets a good piece of McQuaid on the initial forecheck, and that irritates him to the point where he’s chasing Martin around for the rest of the shift before taking a penalty. A minute later, William Nylander finishes off his hat trick. This video isn’t about X’s and O’s; it’s just a hustle shift from the fourth line that led to a goal.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’d give the Matthews-Kadri-Nylander line a little more time together when the team needs a spark. Lately, Babcock has been putting the three together as the first line to go out after a penalty kill. They scored a great goal against Boston, and later in the third Matthews hit the post playing with Nylander and Kadri. If anything, it’s a nice line to have in the back pocket to put out on occasion. If Babcock goes back to the Bozak line, it gives him two high-end scoring lines when the team is pushing for a goal late in a game/period.
2. With four games this week, I think I’d be giving Alexey Marchenko a look. He’s shown he can be an NHL defenseman, he is right handed (under 40% of NHL defensemen are) and he brings size, plays on the penalty kill, and moves the puck well in transition. Marincin-Polak really struggled against the Bruins. I’d be in favour of giving Hunwick-Marchenko a look in one of the back-to-back games on Monday or Tuesday.
3. If Marchenko shows well, I think it allows the Leafs to trade one of Hunwick/Polak, maybe shuffle some draft picks, and improve marginally in the process. Last deadline, Lou Lamoriello was able to trade Polak and Nick Spalling for two seconds while eating Raffi Torres’ contract. That sort of trade would provide Toronto an opportunity to turn those picks around, still keep the picks they have now, and improve the roster slightly. Wins all around.
4. I do think the defense needs to be sorted out on the whole before the Leafs can shuffle picks and players. That starts, I think, with resting Morgan Rielly. Babcock said he has a high ankle sprain — a very tough injury to come back from. He was out a little over two weeks and the team struggled in his absence, but they have to do what’s for the best long-term. Against Boston, Rielly left the bench temporarily after what was essentially a nothing play. He did come back shortly after, but they are playing with fire here.
5. I think the price of Vernon Fiddler (a fourth-round pick) would scare me if I were the Leafs. He’s strictly a fourth-line, veteran forward with some PK and faceoff ability; the kind of player many think the Leafs need to target. At this point in time, though, management shouldn’t be sacrificing picks that high for such a marginal upgrade. Save for waiver claims, I don’t see why the Leafs should be making any short-term moves like that at this point in the rebuild.