Leafs faced with complex task of getting Frederik Andersen back on track

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to discuss Frederik Andersen's health, and workload down the stretch, and why signs point to him not quite being 100 percent, which is concerning this time of year.

PHILADELPHIA — In the post-mortem of last year’s first-round loss to the Boston Bruins, it was somewhat overlooked that Frederik Andersen wasn’t himself.

Or at least anything close to the best version of himself.

So there has to be at least a modicum of concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs that we are now two weeks out from another best-of-seven with Boston and something feels off with the No. 1 goaltender.

You can see it in his play, with an .887 save percentage in March. And on Wednesday morning, before a start against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center, you could see it in his demeanour when asked rather benignly if this is the best he’s felt in his career towards the end of the regular season.

"I don’t know if that’s accurate," said Andersen. "I think I’ve played more games and felt better [in the past]. I think that this year I’ve been banged up a little bit at times, and obviously with the time I missed it’s been different. I don’t really want to compare too much of how I felt.

"Right now the focus is on trying to feel good going into the playoffs."

There are a couple different ways that quote can be interpreted, but for now, let’s stick with the known facts: Andersen’s workload has been the subject of internal debate going back a couple months, largely due to how few NHL goalies have enjoyed playoff success in recent years after making 60 or more appearances in the regular season.

Andersen sailed past that threshold the last two years – starting 66 times in both – and is on pace to basically hit that number exactly in Year 3 after missing a little more than two weeks coming out of the Christmas break with a groin injury.

How many of the remaining six regular-season games he’ll start was discussed and mapped out in a meeting with the coaching staff on Tuesday, according to Babcock, and while the coach declined to disclose the exact plan he hinted to reporters that Andersen won’t see more than four of them.

"Fred’s not 12," said Babcock. "He’s a man and so we went through it with him: ‘What do you want, what do you need and what are we going to do to help ya?"’

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There is universal acknowledgement here that Andersen isn’t at his best right now. Where there seems to be a whiff of divergent opinion is how best to get him on track in these final days before the playoffs.

That first hint of weirdness surfaced back on March 6 in Vancouver, when Babcock, without prompting, revealed a plan for what sounded like a scaled-back workload during the final month: "The way we look at it is his max total can get to 56 [games] or something, that’s a real good number for him."

Andersen was visibly perturbed that night when told about his coach’s comment and chose not to discuss how much input he’s given in those sort of decisions: "I’m going to keep that between us. He can share whatever he wants to share."

Two days later, following a practice at Rogers Arena, Babcock told reporters he "misspoke" about the internal 56-game limit.

Andersen will make his 57th appearance here in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. He’s started seven games since his workload first came under heavy scrutiny on the Western Canada trip, delivering a solid 31-save outing in the March 9 win in Edmonton and then hitting a rough patch.

His game-by-game save percentage since then is .789, .714, .793, .895, .929 and .861.

Asked Wednesday how much he’d like to play down the stretch, Andersen demurred: "I don’t have a number for you. I think it’s just a matter of trying to approach it like a pre-season and get ready. I don’t really care what that exact number is. That’s a waste of time for me."

One way or another, he needs to find the right combination of mental and physical sharpness. It wasn’t there for him in a loosey-goosey 7-5 victory over Florida on Monday, a game where the Panthers put a fair bit of contact on him in the crease area.

While Andersen says he has no current concerns about his health, he clearly hasn’t played up to the standard he set through three-quarters of this season. The task now for both the player and organization is to determine what combination of rest, practice and game action will give him the best chance possible for a better playoff outcome in Boston.

"The biggest thing is you’ve got to feel good," said Babcock. "Any athlete that can pretend they’re playing well when they’re not feeling good, it’s just not possible."

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