You might say the second game of back-to-backs has been the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ arch nemesis this season.
Even Frederik Andersen couldn’t save them in Toronto’s most recent two-games-in-two-days stretch, starting both halves for the first time since 2017. The Leafs still haven’t won the second game of these back-to-back situations yet this season.
Outside of Wednesday’s game against Colorado, this has entirely fallen on the backups. Michael Hutchinson is 0-5-1 with an .876 save percentage, while Kasimir Kaskisuo’s lone start resulted in a 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh. It’s no secret this is Toronto’s primary weakness right now, not only because of the hole it puts the team in for the back-to-backs, but also because the play from the backups so far inspires no confidence at all they can be trusted for other starts just to give Andersen a rest.
The Leafs can’t go on like this. Andersen can’t be leaned on to play in the neighbourhood of 65 games and carry the team through four playoff rounds.
The Maple Leafs must be in the market for a backup goalie and, at this point, may have to pay a premium to do it.
“It’s beyond price. You’re going to have to overpay. And I would do that — and if Kyle does that I will not criticize him,” Brian Burke told Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Good Show. “If he has to give up a second-round pick or a good kid to solve this issue… because this is their Achilles heel. This is a fatal flaw for this team making the playoffs, if they don’t address this.”
What seems like it should be desperation mode to fix this issue — or at least to try something different — is what made last weekend’s trade of Eric Comrie so curious. And perhaps highlights how Toronto isn’t feeling the same urgency the fan base is. Arizona moved the 24-year-old netminder who posted a .917 AHL save percentage last season, to Detroit for Vili Saarijarvi, a 2015 third-round pick who had 16 AHL points last season. Comrie’s limited NHL exposure — just five games — has not been good so there’s no guarantee he would have fixed anything. But he was cheap enough that the Leafs wouldn’t have had to make another roster move to accommodate him and, hey, anything is better than what Toronto has gotten so far, right?
Part of the Leafs’ thinking for pushing forward with Hutchinson is that he has a .905 career NHL save percentage, so odds would indicate a bounce back towards that number is due. But Toronto is today outside of a playoff spot, with the league’s 25th-ranked points percentage and with Andersen on pace for a career-high workload. Eventually, the GM must strike to make the bleeding stop, before it’s too late.
But there will be no easy answer here. An obvious fix is unlikely to fall into their lap through waivers in time and no one is going to give the needy Leafs an upgrade at discount. With Toronto stuck up against the salary cap they’ve already lost Nick Shore to waivers in the crunch, so bringing in a goalie with a cap hit higher than $700,000 would present other roster complications down the road. Andreas Johnsson was put on LTIR Friday morning, so at least for the time being that cap crunch has been alleviated again.
With all that in mind, we’re taking a look around the league at some potential targets for Toronto’s back up job, though acquiring some of these names would mean other areas of the roster would be impacted.
THE SUB-$1 MILLION CAP HITS FROM THE AHL
Alex Lyon, Philadelphia Flyers
The 26-year-old was given two starts by the Flyers last season and 11 the season before, but all together has posted an .894 save percentage at the NHL level.
Still, he has a top-15 save rate in the AHL this season and was top-10 in 2018-19, so might be worth taking that shot on. His age and contract situation (a UFA at season’s end) mean the price of acquisition will likely not be all that high. But while he’s been solid in the AHL, his brief NHL career would suggest there’s little guarantee he’d end up panning out as an upgrade on Hutchinson.
Christopher Gibson, NY Islanders
With Semyon Varlamov signed through 2022-23 and Thomas Greiss near the league lead in save percentage, the Islanders would only have use for Gibson in case of injury. The 26-year-old is also up for UFA status this summer and his .918 AHL save percentage this season is tied with Lyon.
Gibson has gotten into 14 NHL games spread across three of the past four seasons and has a credible .904 save percentage and 3-4-3 record to show for it. He may actually be a decent bet to help Toronto in their area of need — but do you think Isles GM Lou Lamoriello is keen to help out his former employer?
Troy Grosenick, Nashville Predators
At 30 years old, Grosenick has only played two NHL games in his career and both came all the way back in 2014-15 — a 45-save shutout against Carolina and a 4-1 loss to Buffalo two days later where he faced only 13 shots.
But Grosenick was the AHL’s goalie of the year three years ago, had the third-best AHL save percentage last season and he’s tied for 11th right now. He’s splitting starts with 22-year-old Connor Ingram right now and, again, would not cost a significant asset.
Garret Sparks, Vegas Golden Knights
Another 26-year-old goalie who is heading towards unrestricted free agency this off-season, but Sparks actually has a history with the Leafs, Dubas and Sheldon Keefe. He was the backup goalie in Toronto just last season, though Hutchinson posted better numbers in a quarter of the games played.
Still, Sparks posted an .897 save percentage in 37 games across two seasons with the Leafs, which obviously isn’t great but nonetheless represents a big enough improvement over the current situation. With Vegas, Sparks is splitting starts in the AHL and has a top-six save percentage — tied with Kaskisuo. The Knights would value the goalie depth they have given Marc-Andre Fleury’s age, so the trade price to land Sparks may be higher than you think.
THE SUB-$1 MILLION CAP HITS FROM THE NHL
Alexandar Georgiev, NY Rangers
The 23-year-old Bulgarian has been a solid backup to Henrik Lundqvist for 55 games across three seasons now, posting a .916 save percentage with a 25-21-6 record. So why would the Rangers, with 37-year-old Henrik Lundqvist nearing the end, even entertain the idea of moving a player like that?
“I’ve wondered about Georgiev because they’ve got a prospect in the American Hockey League (Igor) Shesterkin who looks dynamite and he’s going to play a bit. And I believe Georgiev is five games away from being waiver eligible so the Rangers are going to have to do something there,” Elliotte Friedman said on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Lead Off on Friday. However, Friedman also noted that he “can’t sense that the Maple Leafs have looked at him.”
Given Georgiev’s cap hit is below $800,000 (scheduled to be an RFA this summer), he’s performed well and is still so young, this would not be a cheap trade to make. But all those factors is what would also make Georgiev one of the safer bets to fix Toronto’s backup problem, if they choose to pursue him.
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins
Another, more expensive, Penguins goalie who is buried in the minors appears below but the fact is Pittsburgh has three NHL calibre netminders in the organization. Of course, they are shaping up to be in the same playoff race Toronto is, so they may not want to help out a rival — especially not for a price that’s easy to swallow. Pittsburgh may rather keep Jarry given he has a .936 save percentage this season and his $675,000 cap hit is a beautiful thing. However, he is RFA eligible this summer and will demand a raise — plus the Pens already signed the other backup they have to a three-year extension in January.
Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings
For this season, Campbell has a $675,000 cap hit the Leafs could absorb under their crunch. After that, he was extended for two years with a $1.65 million cap hit so Toronto would have to manage that ahead of 2020-21. But Campbell, the 11th overall pick all the way back in the 2010 draft, finally arrived in the NHL last season, playing 31 games for the lowly Kings and posting a .928 save percentage — though this season hasn’t been as hot (.894). With Jonathan Quick still struggling and the Kings in rebuild mode, all trade options outside of Doughty-Kopitar have to be on the table. And Los Angeles has 25-year-old Cal Petersen crushing it in the AHL and deserving of an NHL promotion.
THE LARGER NHL CAP HITS
Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks
This one may be more of a long shot not only because of Miller’s $1.125 million cap hit, but also because the reason he went to Anaheim from Vancouver a couple years ago was so his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, could be closer to a place that fits her career as well.
At 39, Miller is not the goalie he once was, but he’s still managed a .906 save percentage behind another bad Ducks team this season. Miller has a partial no-trade clause in which he can submit a list of six teams he would accept a trade to, so obviously Toronto would have to be on that. If they are, perhaps he’d be open to a move closer to the trade deadline in February — if the Ducks remain out of the playoffs — to help along one more playoff push.
But that’s an awful lot of time for the Leafs to wait to fix this problem.
Casey DeSmith, Pittsburgh Penguins
At 28 years old and coming off a 2018-19 NHL season in which he played 36 games and posted a .916 save percentage for the Penguins, DeSmith would be the best option here for this season and beyond. But that also makes him by far the most expensive to acquire via trade.
DeSmith signed a three-year extension with the Penguins in January for a $1.25-million cap hit, but he’s been relegated to the AHL this season, where he has a top-10 save rate. DeSmith is the Penguins’ safety net behind Matt Murray and the younger Jarry in case injury hits, so GM Jim Rutherford may not want to sacrifice that security in the middle of a season while he continues to do his best to push for another Cup with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. And Toronto would have to deal with other roster issues if they took on the full cap.
Collin Delia, Chicago Blackhawks
There was a time last season when Delia looked to have a chance to stick with the Hawks, posting a .939 save percentage in his first five starts. But that number dropped as he went along, finishing with a .908 save percentage and a 6-4-3 record in 16 appearances.
This year, the 25-year-old is behind Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford and playing in the AHL. Since both of those NHL netminders are UFA-eligible next summer, the Hawks may have a plan for him to get back to the big leagues next season, but he has not followed up with the same form in 2019-20, posting an .877 AHL save percentage. His NHL cap hit would be $1 million, so bringing Delia to Toronto would lead to other roster moves and Dubas may not want to put his team in that situation with someone who himself is still a bit of a question mark.