Frederik Andersen opens up about early-season struggles

Jeff Marek and John Shannon look at the top teams and best stories coming out of Canada as the NHL hits the unofficial quarter-season mark.

TORONTO – After landing in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ crease on a five-year, $25-million contract over the summer, Frederik Andersen felt like a golfer striding on to the first tee.

He had a big gallery. And he wanted to make a big impression.

“When you play golf and you want to hit a long bomb down the fairway, you grip and swing out of your shoes,” Andersen said Friday. “Not all the time it goes down the middle.”

The 27-year-old Dane – who typically shoots in the mid-80s when he hits the links – summoned the golfing analogy when asked about the challenges of joining a new team. It was something he underestimated after a June 20 trade took him from Anaheim to Toronto.

That deal included a sizeable contract extension and the promise of being an unchallenged No. 1 on an up-and-coming team. It was the kind of situation he had often dreamed about – at least until the season started in nightmarish fashion.

Reflecting back on it now, he believes the new surroundings and bigger paycheque messed with his frame of mind.

“You know you’re going to be here and you want to prove yourself right away,” said Andersen. “Sometimes that’s added pressure you don’t want to put on yourself. It doesn’t help you out too much.”

Everything came to a head during a 7-3 loss to Tampa on Oct. 25, when coach Mike Babcock left Andersen in for all seven goals against. Babcock is unafraid to challenge his goalies and wanted to make it clear that the only way out of a funk was to work through it.

Anderson has responded in impressive fashion.

He’s put together a .931 save percentage in 12 appearances since – “that’s what we expected,” said Babcock – and all indications are that the Leafs intend to ride him hard into the second half of the season.

On Saturday, he’ll start for the 18th time in 21 games when the Washington Capitals come to town. He should easily eclipse the career-best 54 appearances he had two years ago for the Ducks.

“He’s got a big workload this year,” said Babcock. “He’s not going one (in) and one (out). He’s got to continue to work hard in practice and get better and if he does that, obviously that helps us out.”

It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.

Andersen is a quiet guy who didn’t initially feel completely comfortable inside the Leafs dressing room. After missing the start of training camp with a shoulder injury, he had to adjust to new teammates, new trainers and a new support staff.

He couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed.

“It’s just the amount of how many new faces you’ve got to learn, and new guys,” said Andersen. “Even though it’s the same sport you’ve played all your life, and mostly the same kind of way they do things around (each team), it’s just so many new impressions. A new every day of life.

“All of that stuff builds up.”

It prompted Babcock to encourage him to find some outlets away from the rink. Andersen tried to clear his mind by watching some shows on Netflix and taking walks around his new city.

Ultimately, it was conversations with old friends that helped get him back on track.

“[They were] just reminding me of how they knew I could play,” he said. “Just to trust myself and do what I had done before. That made the difference.”

His turnaround has given a skilled but inexperienced team hope of staying in the playoff race. The Leafs are scoring much more than they did a year ago, but they’re also allowing the second highest total of shots per game against (33.2).

As they attempt to bring that number down, they can take comfort in the fact that Andersen is looking solid behind them. He’s moved past the rough start and looks to be worth the price the Leafs paid to get him.

“I feel pretty much at home now,” said Andersen. “I feel really good with the guys, I’m starting to have a little bit more fun – [feeling] a little bit more loose. It’s one of those things where you can’t just jump right into it; you’ve got to just let it happen and build it up.

“It’s a good thing to have it over with now. It’s something you don’t want to go through if you don’t have to.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.