TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe saw a chance to spark his lifeless Toronto Maple Leafs.
But he also spotted an opportunity to try and continue building up his backup goaltender.
His decision to replace Frederik Andersen less than 22 minutes into Monday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers caught pretty much everybody off-guard — including Michael Hutchinson, who spelled Andersen with Toronto trailing 3-0.
The move didn’t produce its intended result, even though Jason Spezza scored within a minute, but it did provide Hutchinson the opportunity to get back in the crease just days after reeling off his third straight victory in a shutout over the New York Islanders.
The Leafs are mindful of the potential to overplay Andersen this season, and are still feeling their way through the situation with his backup.
“That was a big part of our decision to play Hutch (on Saturday) — just a combination of you’ve got to give Freddie the rest, but we’ve also got to know,” Keefe said before the 6-4 loss to Edmonton. “We’ve got to know what we have and put him in a situation — not just in a back-to-back where it’s like, ‘Well, we have to play him today,’ but more just like, ‘We believe in you.'”
Hutchinson has looked more comfortable in the crease of late and would probably only want one of the three Edmonton goals that got past him back — a shot from Alex Chiasson that fooled him glove side.
He certainly didn’t have any real chance on Connor McDavid’s jaw-dropping individual effort in the third period, a goal you’ll be seeing on end-of-year highlight reels.
The timing of his recent stretch of better play is ideal for him since the Leafs suddenly have more cap space at their disposal. With Ilya Mikheyev likely done for the regular season, they are in a position to add anywhere from $1.5 to $2 million in salary commitments — depending on which players are sent to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies when Andreas Johnsson and Trevor Moore get healthy.
That expands the pool of backups general manager Kyle Dubas could potentially pursue, although you get the sense the Leafs would prefer to allocate that extra cap space to other upgrades before the Feb. 24 trade deadline and continue running with Hutchinson as the No. 2.
If nothing else, the team’s 15-5-1 run under Keefe has bought more time for evaluation. The coach seemed to hint that Hutchinson could be in line for additional starts in situations where the Leafs aren’t facing a back-to-back — perhaps like next week’s visit by the New Jersey Devils.
“He’s made great progress,” Keefe said of Hutchinson. “We didn’t want to have too long between starts because, as I said, we do kind of need to know whether he can respond in these situations. Another guy that I do believe in and I’ve seen a lot of progress since I’ve been here even with his mindset and his practice habits and his competitiveness and all those things, his confidence.”
There was no confusing the intended message when he elected to yank Andersen from Monday’s game after he allowed three goals on 19 shots.
Keefe was trying to send a wake-up call to his players — not the team’s MVP and a man headed to the all-star game later this month. Andersen was the sole reason the score was just 1-0 against McDavid’s wrecking crew after 20 minutes, but when defensive breakdowns allowed Edmonton to pop in two quick goals early in the second period, the coach felt the need to act.
“We only have about five seconds to make that decision and just through experience, more than anything at least in that scenario, is kind of why I made it pretty quickly,” said Keefe. “But, before I did, I just told our team ‘I’m not going to let Freddie play behind that. That’s not fair to him.’
“To that point I felt like he’d already had almost a full game worth of work.”
It’s not a maneuver his predecessor, Mike Babcock, resorted to often.
In fact, Andersen hadn’t been pulled since March — a stretch of play that included a night in October where he surrendered seven to the Tampa Bay Lightning without getting the hook.
The Dane wasn’t too pleased about his early exit, but said he understood why it happened: “That’s (Keefe’s) decision, but I want to be in there.”
He can blame his teammates for a flat performance against the Oilers, particularly during an opening period where they had no jump and gave up 17 shots. That created the conditions where it started to make sense to throw Hutchinson in.
“Obviously, we didn’t get their attention in the first intermission like we would have liked to, like we thought that we would have or thought that we did,” said Keefe. “It didn’t transfer to the ice, so I had to do something such as that to get our team’s attention and to save Freddie from what was happening.”