The Toronto Maple Leafs got deeper at every position over the summer except the most important one.
A seasoned centre who can win draws, chip in offence and kill penalties? Come on home, Dominic Moore.
One of the fastest and most trustworthy scoring wingers on the open market? Pack your bags, Patrick Marleau.
But in net? The Maple Leafs stood pat. They cut ties with prospect Antoine Bibeau after his sub-.900 save percentage in the AHL, and re-signed backup Curtis McElhinney, the 34-year-old journeyman they picked up mid-season off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
We must be cautious about reading too much into the pre-season, let alone one game in the pre-season, but the two-year, $1.7-million reign of McElhinney got off to the shakiest of starts Monday night in Ottawa: four goals allowed on 12 shots before getting pulled in favour of third-stringer Garret Sparks.
“The puck just went in the net way too much,” coach Mike Babcock said.
Twitter was less kind, to put it gently, as McElhinney’s first 2017-18 impression confirmed for many a safe assumption.
More than any other single player, the Leafs’ success relies on Frederik Andersen.
McElhinney gets it.
He has no delusions of pilfering the No. 1 role, and he’s aware that higher-profile free-agent backups end up in cities where they might have a chance to dethrone the other guy.
Brian Elliott in Philadelphia, Ryan Miller in Anaheim, Steve Mason in Winnipeg, Anders Nilsson in Vancouver, Chad Johnson in Buffalo—these signings make sense for the players.
Toronto reportedly took a healthy run at expensive and excellent Senators backup Mike Condon before he re-signed in Ottawa for three years and $7.2 million, giving himself a chance to succeed Craig Anderson as their No. 1.
McElhinney won’t fool himself into believing he was the Leafs’ first choice on July 1.
“Every team does their due diligence. They look at all the options,” McElhinney told Sportsnet. “The biggest thing was that I wanted to be back and continue what I started last year. There’s a bit of hype around the team now with the way things went. I want to be part of that. I’m grateful more than anything.”
The money committed to a career .905 goaltender was fine, but the two years was a head-scratcher to many observers. Not only is this the richest contract of McElhinney’s career, he knows it might be his last.
“I’m at the tail end of my career now, so the security goes a long way. Regardless of how everything plays out, it’s nice to know a two-year deal was there,” McElhinney says.
“The biggest thing for me is getting started on the right foot and showing a little bit of faith back in the team that they gave to me by giving me the contract.”
Why the Leafs stuck with McElhinney is because he embraces the support role, he’s big (six foot three, 200 pounds), he’s an easy dressing room fit, and he performed well down the stretch. His 6-7 record (one shutout) and .914 save percentage filling in for an injured Andersen was underscored by a brilliant playoff-berth-preserving relief save on Sidney Crosby. It’s one of those highlights that lodges itself in management’s mind.
Andersen is happy to see Mac back.
“He has so much experience, especially as a backup. He’s been around doing that for a while, and I don’t think you stick around that long if you don’t have what it takes,” Anderson says. “On top of that, he’s a great guy in the room.”
When McElhinney was discarded on waivers by Columbus, uncertainty cascaded over him. The goalie says he was just happy to find a fit and had little time to bond with his new teammates.
“I don’t know about close. I was living out of a hotel. I had my family back in Columbus last year, so if I had a free day I was heading back to see them,” McElhinney says. “I have an excellent rewards program now.”
McElhinney was born in London, Ont., but devotes his summers to Colorado, where the arena for his other passions — fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking — sits literally out the back door. The new deal allowed him to move his family to a midtown Toronto home for the winter.
“It’s nice to be in a house and see your own possessions again,” he says.
Like Cam Talbot in Edmonton, Martin Jones in San Jose, and Tuukka Rask in Boston, the Leafs are putting all their eggs in the basket of their Number 1.
Only Talbot (73 starts) had more starts than Andersen’s 66 last season. If the big Dane stays healthy, we could see his number climb even higher. The Leafs have just 14 back-to-backs this season compared to 18 in 2016-17, and without a World Cup or Olympic participation, this season is less truncated.
“Whatever the number is, it doesn’t matter to me,” Andersen says. “I want to play as much as I can. The coaching staff has done a good job of making sure I’m ready to play, and I’ll do the work and practice to play as much as possible.”
Instead of investing in a second car, the Leafs gave their primary ride a tune-up.
Training (and golfing) in California, Andersen spent time with a nutritionist and paid strict attention to what he consumed. If not meaner, the gentle giant certainly arrives leaner.
“It’s not so much that I had to cut something out. It was more managing the portions of protein, carbs and fats in detail. I love a good steak, but that’s not so much a cheat food,” says Andersen, who denies any ill effects coming off the heaviest workload of his career.
“My body felt really good, actually. We paid close attention to every signal the body was giving me. That’s something we’ll continue to do and take precautions to get better, to be healthy.”
Andersen’s coach, who defended him during last fall’s rocky adjustment to the Toronto spotlight, affirms the goalie is in the best shape of his life.
“Because of his fitness, he should be able to play more,” Babcock says. “You add it all up, it’s looking pretty good for Freddy.”
Andersen is more comfortable now. Stress is inherent in switching from the team that drafted you. Add a 2016 pre-season injury, which he suffered during Olympic qualifying, and a formidable media presence descending daily on a modest, soft-spoken athlete, and it got to him.
“It’s nice to not have to deal with all that extra stuff,” Andersen says.
McElhinney’s limitations shouldn’t be an issue as long as Andersen continues to develop into a workhorse wonder and the division of labour remains lopsided.
“Can it be 60 and 22 [starts]? Sounds like good math to me,” says Babcock, whose tolerance for bad backups is understood.
“The better we play, the easier it is on the goaltender. We’ll see how it all works out. We’ll see how health is. We’ll see how he’s playing and how we’re playing.”
No one understands the tenuousness of the gig as well as McElhinney.
“Sometimes you go in with a plan, and all of a sudden that plan changes. It happened in Calgary all the time when I was there,” McElhinney says.
“Last year was consistent with the back-to-backs. So, if I had to guess, it’d be a similar situation. But the season’s unpredictable.”