Frederik Andersen has mastered the art of stealing games, but he can't do it forever. The Leafs must play better in front of him to make the playoffs.
He’d faced more shots than all but one NHL goaltender this season. He owned a .928 save percentage over his past 30 appearances. And yet, Frederik Andersen sat alone at his dressing stall Thursday morning at the Air Canada Centre, minding his own business as reporters gathered around fresh Toronto lineup insertion Frank Corrado. Andersen quietly tended to his gear, collecting his thoughts, preparing for a game several hours later against the New York Rangers. It was a perfect portrait of a man best described as unsung in his first season starting in goal for the Maple Leafs.
This is the Year of the Kids, after all. It’s Auston Matthews’ year. It’s Mitch Marner’s year. It’s William Nylander’s year. Heck, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman continue stealing headlines of their own. And Toronto boasts a few veteran success stories, too. Nazem Kadri has Selke Trophy voters circling him. James van Riemsdyk has been one of the NHL’s hotter scorers of late.
Andersen, we all know, struggled mightily in his first five games as a Leaf, posting an .851 save percentage and causing a mass panic in the headlines. But he worked out the problems with goaltending coach Steve Briere, who preached getting one’s mind off hockey when away from the rink, and Andersen realized he was forcing things, challenging shooters too much and not relying on his size.
“You want to have that belief that you know what kind of goalie you are,” Andersen said Thursday. “Luckily I had some experience in Anaheim before. I knew I could play at a high level and work through adversity like that. Me and Stevie had some things straightened out, some stuff in my game that needed to be corrected a little bit, and I got back to how I could play.”
He has indeed locked down his play since, and while pundits and social media members generally acknowledge that, it’s still unclear if Leaf Nation understands just how valuable Andersen has become to his team. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’s more blocker than athlete, calm and efficient in his movements, meaning he’s less noticeable, not more noticeable, on his good nights. And maybe that’s why he’s overshadowed. He still doesn’t get recognized on the street all that often, even in hockey-mad Toronto.
“Sometimes, but nothing too much where you can’t go anywhere,” he said. “I can still go get a coffee, stuff like that. But you’re happy to take a second to say hi and make their day. So that’s really nothing that bothers me.”
Andersen, though, deserves as much credit as any Leaf for the team’s shocking 21-14-8 start, which puts them right in the thick of the Atlantic Division race with games in hand on almost everyone. Hockey-reference.com’s point share stat refers to how many points in the standings a player is responsible for based on his season performance. The only players owning more point shares than Andersen: Brent Burns, Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Cam Talbot. The stat naturally carries a goalie bias, but Andersen still ranks above the likes of Braden Holtby. Maybe that’s because Andersen has become a game stealer.
While the Leafs generate the third-most shots on goal per game at 32.7, they allow the fourth most at 32.8. Andersen gets pelted with rubber most nights. I created a stat: “stolen games,” which consists of performances in which a goalie makes 30 or more saves and his team wins by two goals or fewer. Andersen has accomplished that feat eight times this season. My unofficial NHL stolen games leaderboard:
STOLEN GAMES (30+ saves, win by two goals or fewer)
1. Carey Price, 9
2. Frederik Andersen, 8
3. Craig Anderson, 8
4. Sergei Bobrovsky 8
5. Cam Talbot, 8
6. Corey Crawford, 7
T-7. Devan Dubnyk, 6
T-7. Marc-Andre Fleury, 6
T-7. John Gibson, 6
T-7. Robin Lehner, 6
T-7. Roberto Luongo, 6
So only Price has stolen more games than Andersen according to the stat. But how many more times can Toronto, exciting as heck but still extremely leaky defensively, put Andersen in that position over and over and expect to challenge for a playoff spot? The New York Rangers blitzed him with 40 shots Thursday, four of which beat him. He made plenty of strong saves but couldn't withstand the onslaught.
“He’s been awesome all year, and we hung him out to dry on a few of those tonight,” said Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner. “Definitely not going to blame him. He’s been great.”
Finding Andersen a proper backup has eluded the Leafs all season. Jhonas Enroth flopped. Curtis McElhinney is ticketed to play in back-to-backs. Coach Mike Babcock indicated before the season he intended for Andersen to start at least 60 games in 2016-17, but Andersen has already suited up for 36 of 43. That puts him on pace to flirt with 70. Felix Potvin holds the franchise’s single-season record for appearances with 74. Andersen’s career high is 54, with 53 starts. At what point might he wilt from all the work? Babcock isn’t concerned. He seemed irritated after Thursday's loss when asked about resting Andersen more in the second half of the season.
“No, not thinking of spelling him, not worried about his workload,” Babcock said.
If that’s the case, and the Leafs intend to keep trotting Andersen out there, they have to shore up their defense. They gifted the New York Rangers breakaways Thursday night, most notably on Michael Grabner’s shorthanded dagger that put the game out of reach in the third period. A playoff berth almost seems more likely than not at this point – but it will slip out of the Leafs’ hands if they keep letting Andersen’s crease become a shooting gallery.
“He’s been a stud for us,” said defenseman Roman Polak. “He’s been great all year, and because of him we’ve won lots of matches. When we play like that, it’s unacceptable. But we have to put it behind us, learn from that and keep going forward.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin