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Is Frederik Andersen's horrible start actually his fault?

Matt Larkin
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Is Frederik Andersen's horrible start actually his fault?

Frederik Andersen. Author: (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Is Frederik Andersen's horrible start actually his fault?

Matt Larkin
By:

There's no question the Leaf netminder's numbers have nosedived this season. Is he to blame, or is he getting less help this year?

No disrespect to Deryk Engelland. It’s impossible to dislike the guy, especially this season. He’s a Las Vegas citizen. He epitomizes the Golden Knights’ thrilling, uplifting underdog story.

But in a strict hockey sense, we know who he is. He’s a 214-pound brick wall of a blueliner who entered Monday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs with 23 goals versus 56 fights across 482 NHL regular season games.

It can’t feel the best for a goalie, then, when a guy like Engelland scores on you. It must feel awful when he truly snipes. With the Golden Knights down a goal in the third period Monday, Engelland streaked down the right wing into Toronto’s zone and roofed a wrist shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen, blocker side.

Did Engelland really just do that? Every head in the Air Canada Centre press box tilted up to watch the replay on the TVs. Surely it was tipped or took a bad bounce. Nope. Engelland beat Andersen with a clean shot – and not a particularly hard one. It was a puck any starting-caliber NHL goaltender should stop. And it summed up how 2017-18 has gone for Engelland and Andersen, didn’t it? Engelland can do no wrong and Andersen can seemingly do no right. Well, almost. Andersen redeemed himself with a few nice saves late in the third, in overtime and in a shootout, helping the Maple Leafs escape and win a game they probably shouldn’t have. They spun predictably rosy narratives afterward. Andersen, always wearing a poker face, murmured about just focusing on the next save and staying positive. Center Nazem Kadri raved about Andersen’s short-term memory and insisted bad goals don’t bother his netminder.

“Obviously he didn’t like (the third goal), but good for him – that was a good win for him,” coach Mike Babcock told reporters after the game. “And ideally, that shootout was even better for him, because he did it, and now you get to feel good about yourself. You get to go home and actually sleep good. You get up tomorrow and have some zip in practice. I think that’s important for us.”

So the narrative turns positive on Andersen for now. But is praising him simply making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what? After that win, Andersen’s save percentage sits at .895 on the season through 14 appearances, ranking him 32nd among the NHL’s 40 qualified leaders. He started horrifically in 2016-17, too, but the funk wasn’t nearly as long. He had an .851 SP after five games and hummed along at .923 the rest of the way. By his 14th appearance, he’d lifted his SP to .904. So we can’t merely identify Andersen as an annual slow starter bound to correct his woes. He’s been flat-out worse thus far.

But the most important question for Babcock and the Leafs to ask right now: is it Andersen’s fault? Or are the Leafs, already a defensively porous squad, abandoning their stopper even more this season than last? Let’s dive deeper into Andersen’s advanced numbers, with help from the great stat site corsica.hockey

ANDERSEN, 5-ON-5, 2017-18

Save percentage: .890
Low-danger save percentage: .948
Medium-danger save percentage: .878
High-danger save percentage: .769

ANDERSEN, 5-ON-5, 2016-17

Save percentage: .927
Low-danger save percentage: .985
Medium-danger save percentage: .907
High-danger save percentage: .824

So Andersen is significantly worse at stopping every kind of scoring chance this season. Is the primary problem, though, that he’s facing far more high-quality chances, which are obviously tougher to stop?

Let’s look at what types of scoring chances Andersen faces most commonly this season versus last.

ANDERSEN, 5-ON-5, 2017-18

Low-danger shots: 154
Low-danger shots per 60 mins: 14.4
Medium-danger shots: 108
Medium-danger shots per 60 mins: 10.1
High-danger shots: 65
High-danger shots per 60 mins: 6.1

ANDERSEN, 5-ON-5, 2016-17

Low-danger shots: 739
Low-danger shots per 60 mins: 14.6
Medium-danger shots: 561
Medium-danger shots per 60 mins: 11.0
High-danger shots: 313
High-danger shots per 60 mins: 6.2

So these numbers are, in a word, incriminating for Andersen. The ratios of scoring chance type are almost identical year over year, and he’s actually facing slightly less of every type of scoring chance this year. So we really can’t blame the Leafs for letting their goalie down any more than we did last year. It’s not that Andersen can’t use more help – it’s that his situation does not appear to be any different than last year’s, yet his numbers are far worse. That suggests his play is indeed the problem here.

So that’s scary news for the Leafs, who don’t appear to have much confidence in backup Curtis McElhinney. Maybe it’s time to spell Andersen with Calvin Pickard, who currently toils with the AHL Marlies but has proven himself an NHL-caliber No. 2 in the past.

Another reason for hope: Andersen’s current numbers are nowhere close to his career norms in any category, including his save percentage for every class of scoring chance. And he entered this season with a 191-game sample size, which ain’t peanuts.

So we know two things: (a) Andersen really has been weak for Toronto this year, with little reason to blame the team in front of him; and (b) Andersen will improve. It’s just a matter of whether it can happen soon enough to save the Leafs from a deadly standings plunge.

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Is Frederik Andersen's horrible start actually his fault?