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
The Blackhawks think they can help Jonathan Toews out of his scoring funk by getting him a proven left winger.
The Chicago Blackhawks are jockeying with the Minnesota Wild for top spot in the Western Conference, but there is some worry over their scoring this season. After 47 games, the Blackhawks have only scored 12 more goals (132) than they have allowed (120).
Center Jonathan Toews' offensive struggles are an area of concern. With 22 points in 38 games, the Blackhawks captain is on pace for 42 points. That's well below last season's 58-point output and his 66-point effort of 2014-15.
A back injury that sidelined Toews for nine games earlier this season could still be nagging him. However, the lack of a proven scorer on his left side is also an issue. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Brian Hedger The Athletic.com believe addressing that issue should be a priority for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.
In recent years, Bowman's displayed a willingness to swing deals near the trade deadline to bolster his roster for the playoffs. He'll have over $3.3 million in cap space to work with by the March 1 trade deadline. If he can bank a little more, he could have room to bolster Toews' left side.
Haugh, Lazerus and Ledger believe there's no shortage of possible options. They note James van Riemsyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado Avalanche have surfaced of late in the rumor mill. Both are young and under contract beyond this season. Potential rental players include Landeskog's teammate Jarome Iginla, Martin Hanzal of the Arizona Coyotes and former Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp, who's now with the Dallas Stars.
Given Bowman's trade-deadline history, he'll likely be busy again this year. Taking on long-term options such as van Riemsdyk or Landeskog will be expensive, both in salary and return. With the Blackhawks hosting the 2017 draft, Lazerus doubts Bowman will part with his first-round pick. He also claims the GM is reluctant to move his current young roster players.
Bowman could go the more affordable rental-player route. Earlier this month, he was rumored to have interest in Iginla. He also has a trade history with the Coyotes, having acquired center Antoine Vermette prior to the 2015 deadline. And of course, there's the connection with Sharp.
WHY THE DEVILS SHOULD SHOP SCHNEIDER
Should the New Jersey Devils lose ground in this year's playoff chase, GM Ray Shero could consider getting an early start on his off-season roster plans.
Offense remains a persistent issue for the Devils. Despite the addition last summer of left winger Taylor Hall, their goals-for per game average is a paltry 2.22. Only the Arizona Coyotes (2.02) and Colorado Avalanche (2.05) are worse.
Defense and goaltending, once among the Devils' strengths, are also suffering this season. They've given up too many shots-against per game (31.2). Starting goalie Cory Schneider is having an off-year, with a 2.69 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
The New York Post's Larry Brooks suggests Shero consider shopping Schneider. Though the 30-year-old netminder has a no-trade clause, Brooks speculates he might waive it to join a team with a more immediate future. He wonders if the Devils could get a young puck-moving defenseman from the Dallas Stars, provided Shero agrees to take back one of the Stars' current goalies (Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi) in a package deal.
Unless Schneider demands a trade, Shero won't move him. Still, the Devils GM was willing to make a bold move last summer by acquiring Hall. He might not land a big fish at the trade deadline, but he'll likely be busy again this summer searching for a significant deal.
The Devils also carry considerable salary-cap room this season (over $17 million) and have depth in draft picks. Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun believes Shero has room to take on a bad contract or two from a cap-strapped club if some good prospects are included. Unless those prospects are top-notch, however, Shero's unlikely to waste his cap space.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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The breakaway challenge is gone, replaced by a long-distance target shooting competition. But wouldn't it be more fun if the players used their shots to break stuff?
The NHL All-Star festivities are fast upon us and there will be change again this year. Gone is the breakaway challenge, which, let's face it, ran the gamut from uplifting to supremely awkward. You could see the pained expressions on some of the players who took part and it's fine to blame humble hockey culture as the problem, but it was never going to be the NBA's slam dunk contest anyway.
The new event this year in Los Angeles will be a the four-line challenge, which invites players to hit targets from the blue line, center ice, the far blue line and the far goal line. Goalies can take shots from the far goal line too, in search of extra points.
This sounds OK to me, particularly if the players are winging the pucks at the target (imagine someone taking a slapshot from center ice and hitting a bullseye?), but I actually had another idea the other day, which I humbly present to you, the fan.
Let the players break stuff.
"it was really fun," Matthews said. "You don't get an opportunity to do that all the time. It was a blast – we were shooting at veggie trays and chocolate fondue and cameras."
For me, the random objects are fun, but what I'd really like as an event is for the divisional all-stars to have a competition in which they see who can do the most damage to a car, just by shooting pucks at it. Yes, Gen Xers, I am proposing that the NHL adapt the bonus level from Street Fighter II:
Now, I don't expect the competitors (two guys per team, shooting at the same time) to actually take apart the car like our good friend Ryu, but I bet they could do some pretty good damage in, let's say, one minute of shooting. Obviously you'd have tarps on the ice to catch any broken glass and obviously it would be an old car with no fluids in it (we don't want it to blow up…or do we?). And hey, we can even toss in a charitable element – like whichever teams wins, they get to donate 10 new cars to the cause of their choice. Admit it: you're a little curious about what Shea Weber or Dustin Byfuglien could do to an old Volkswagen Jetta.
Because most Toronto writers flocked to Frankie Corrado this morning (#FreeFrankie), I wasted a minute of Matthews' time by asking him what he thought of my All-Star car smash challenge. Would it be fun for players?
"I guess so, I don't know," he said with a laugh. "I hit my car a few times growing up – my parents weren't too happy about it – but I guess if it was a car no one cared about, it would be fun to do some damage to it."
Sounds like a resounding "yes" to me. And if the NHL needs a judge for a damage panel? I'm willing to volunteer.
Jake Allen has been pulled in each of his past three starts and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But what causes a goaltender to hit a rough patch and how do they go about correcting it?
The recent difficulties facing Jake Allen have been well documented. Over the past month, he’s allowed 14 goals against in five appearances and he’s been pulled in each of his past three starts. None of those outings have been quite as agonizing as Allen’s attempt to right the ship on Thursday night, though.
Against the Capitals, Allen stepped in hoping to bounce back from three consecutive outings in which he served as Carter Hutton’s backup, but the night got away from Allen early. He allowed two goals on the first three shots against and, in a move rarely seen since Mike Keenan’s heyday behind an NHL bench, was pulled for little more than two minutes before going back into play. In the second, Allen allowed another two goals in less than eight minutes and was yanked again, this time for good.
Allen’s recent stretch of dreadful starts has seen him allow 13 goals against on 64 shots in roughly 129 minutes of play, and it’s getting to the point where the Blues are simply looking for an answer when it comes to Allen. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team needs to find a way to “unlock” the 26-year-old.
“There’s a lot in his head, he’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchcock said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford. “So beating it up any more isn’t going to do us any good. We’ve got to get him unlocked, he’s just locked right up.”
But what goes through the mind of a goaltender who’s struggling to sometimes make even the most routine of saves?
“After a couple of screw ups, it’s common to try and play it safer, hang back and be hesitant,” said Matt Cuccaro, a performance coach with Telos SPC. “For someone to stay on their toes and continue to move well and be more assertive in those moments is key…You have to be willing to be that last man on the line and possibly let a few in the net.”
Being hesitant and failing to make plays quicker can undoubtedly lead to more mistakes. As those mistakes pile up, some athletes can deal with the difficulty of letting their errors go. Sports psychologist John Stevenson, whose stable of netminders includes Braden Holtby, said it’s not uncommon for a goaltender mired in a slump to start to feel the losses more than they should.
“A lot of guys take it personally as opposed to realizing it’s not a reflection on them,” said Stevenson. “But let’s just work on the on-ice behaviour that we’re seeing right now and address it. That’s what I try and do with the guys. They realize that it’s OK, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Getting back to a run of good play can be difficult for even the best goaltenders. An important thing to realize, however, is that there are supports in place. Cuccaro said one of the most important things is the understanding that the sport itself isn’t “a solitary endeavor.” Athletes can lean on teammates, coaches and even outside sources to fight through difficult periods. And Stevenson agreed, pointing to something as simple as a tap on the pads or some words of encouragement as something that can help a goaltender shake a bad loss.
One of the most important tools, though, is getting back to basics and finding a positive headspace. Stevenson explained that during his goalie coaching days he’d perform drills with the goaltenders that he knew they excelled at or enjoyed. He’d do that even if the drill itself wasn’t correcting an issue plaguing the goaltender. Simple things like puck tracking drills or goal-setting can help, too. The confidence boost from a strong performance in a drill could sometimes be enough to shake them out of trouble.
Another of Stevenson’s methods is goal-setting, and it can be especially helpful after a bad game. If a goalie can point to a few tough goals against and indicate how they’d correct that mistake, it can help reframe the experience as a positive, a way to learn. And when it comes to positive thinking, that should be the case regardless of the result.
“You have to treat winning and losing the same,” Stevenson said. “For the goalies I work with the first thing we do is always focus on what you did well. Last night, I would be talking to Jake and telling him he went back in. There’s always something. ‘You had some really good days of practice, your pre-game routine was really good.’ Always start off with what they did well.”
And in the darkest of days, it can help to take it out of the goaltender’s hands and show them the positives. A simple highlight reel that shows a goaltender performing at his best, making saves in different scenarios and situations, can reinforce the idea that a slump is only that: a slump. “That’s something I do all the time because I want them to know this isn’t who they are,” Stevenson said. “When you’re giving them that (positive) image, it helps tremendously.”
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