Layoff has Leafs’ Andersen on track for championship-calibre workload

Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen talks about his excitement to get back into game action, and head coach Mike Babcock discusses the job Michael Hutchinson did filling in, but is happy to have "our guy" back in action.

TORONTO — Even if no one will say it quite in these terms, there is a silver lining to the groin issue that has put Frederik Andersen on course to make fewer regular-season starts than his previous two years with the Maple Leafs.

The big Dane appeared destined to blow past the NHL’s point of no return for a No. 1 goaltender by playing 65-plus games once again — at least until he was shut down coming out of the Christmas break with what he described as a nagging issue that first popped up earlier in December.

Now, with Andersen set to return for Monday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, he’s been recalibrated towards a workload that looks more like those of goaltenders who have won four playoff rounds in recent years.

Consider it a side benefit to his eight-game, 23-day layoff. In fact, mark it down as one of the reasons so much caution was likely taken with his recovery.

“I’ve been working hard on making sure it feels well and feels good to play on and obviously something that won’t linger,” said Andersen. “That’s the main issue. I think that’s why we took a little bit of extra time, to make sure it was feeling great.

“I’m sure I probably could have, if I really had to play, I could have pushed it a little bit sooner. We tested our patience a little bit in trying to get it fixed.”

That’s a prudent approach. There may not be a player more important to this season of heady expectations in Toronto.

Not only is Andersen prominently featured in the Vezina Trophy conversation — with his sparkling .923 save percentage and 20-9-1 record — but in Garret Sparks and Michael Hutchinson, the Leafs aren’t blessed with secondary options Mike Babcock would trust to carry the mail come playoff time.

They must ensure, then, that Andersen is handled with as much care as humanly possible.

He’s faced more rubber than any of his colleagues since the start of 2016-17 — 2,211 shots and counting — but is now on pace to appear in 61 games, assuming Babcock follows his well-established template of starting him in every game except both ends of a back-to-back.

Perhaps an extra couple starts will even be sprinkled in for Sparks down the stretch to keep Andersen in the high 50s. That should leave him a little more fresh come the post-season, given that he played 66 games each of the last two years.

“Freddie’s our guy,” said Babcock. “He hasn’t played in a long time. The doctors and the trainers were real careful to make sure. Obviously, he’s an important part of the team. So he’s had a good rest and good time off.

“Between the goalie coach and him, they say he’s up and running and ready to go.”

The conversation about how much is too much for a goalie to play is being had all over the league. No one since Jonathan Quick in 2012 has won the Stanley Cup after cresting 60 games during the season, and the workload for the top goalies has been reduced across the board in the last decade.

There is the odd exception — Vegas seems to be playing with fire by using Marc-Andre Fleury 41 times in 48 games, for example — but even goaltenders themselves have come around to the idea that less might end up being more in the long run.

“Back in the day, I used to play 70-plus games and you’re exhausted all the time,” Nashville Predators starter Pekka Rinne said recently. “You play the whole game, and it’s the mental wear.”

Andersen experienced a different sort of mental challenge during this absence. He had several on-ice sessions with goalie coach Steve Briere, and rejoined his teammates for practice on Jan. 4, but still had to wait 10 more days to get back in action.

That meant fielding a lot of questions about how he was feeling, which kept his mind searching for an answer, and that’s a much different way of being than when he’s locked in on getting ready to play every other day.

“I’ve just kind of been going by what they were saying in the trainer’s room,” said Andersen. “I’m looking forward to be back playing again. I think anyone will say that — it sucks to look from the outside in, and see the guys playing without you. You want to be part of the team and part of the battle for every game.”

There was naturally a little bit of relief after finally hearing his number called again on Monday.

“You want to be in there, you want to be in there every night and [sitting out is] really hard to do,” said Andersen. “Especially when you feel like you’re playing well. Yeah, just kind of tested my patience a little bit.”

If it pays off in the spring, it will have been worth it.

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