Maple Leafs facing uncertain next steps after loss to Avalanche

Valeri Nichushkin gets credited with the winning goal to help the Colorado Avalanche defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — The Leafs had a plan until they got hit in the mouth.

Now they’ve got an even more interesting problem on their hands: With a starting goaltender they’re concerned about overworking, with a backup who’s done nothing but plant seeds of doubt, with a salary cap squeeze taking grip and with a playoff spot far from assured, where do they go from here?

Frederik Andersen talked his way into making a second start in as many nights Wednesday and played his heart out against the Colorado Avalanche, but he couldn’t keep this from becoming what it was likely to be since the NHL schedule was finalized months ago: A Maple Leafs loss.

There’s a very good reason why the team had played 43 sets of back-to-backs since they last ran him out on both ends. That was all the way back in January 2017 — just days before they wisely plucked Curtis McElhinney off the waiver wire — and even Andersen himself acknowledged that it’s not a strategy they should look to repeat again this season.

"I mean ideally you stick to the plan," he said after stopping 28 shots in a 3-1 loss. "But I think this circumstance [with] the last game, I thought it was important to send a message to the guys that I want to be with them and battle out here for them."

To what end, though?

There is not a soul inside this organization that questions Andersen’s commitment to the cause. He’s faced 500 more regular-season shots than any of his contemporaries since arriving in Toronto and he’s easily been their steadiest performer this season.

In starting him immediately after Tuesday’s 6-1 faceplant in Philadelphia — a game where Auston Matthews said the Leafs "folded" and "kind of just quit" while allowing five goals to the Flyers in the final 10 minutes — the Leafs seemed to be placing added importance on the visit by Colorado.

That’s admirable, to a degree, but the cost-benefit analysis didn’t add up in Game 30 of the season. The Avalanche are a top-tier team with the NHL’s best offence and had the additional benefit of rest. No matter how hard the Leafs tried — and they played hard while sawing off the shot attempts and expected goals at 5-on-5 — it was going to be tough to win under these conditions.

Andersen made four or five tremendous saves, including a 10-beller on Joonas Donskoi during a double-minor penalty kill in the third period, and still they came up just a little bit short.

"There’s urgency in our group right now," said veteran Jason Spezza. "We’re going through growing pains of learning a new system and doing things, but also we need results at the same time. Freddie, that shows a lot about his character, coming out and playing like that. He played a great game.

"It just makes the loss even harder."

In exchange for playing him Wednesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe said that the Leafs will likely start winless backup Michael Hutchinson in one of the games on the Western Canada road trip next week.

That game immediately becomes more difficult to win as a result.

What makes the decision-making more head-scratching is that it was only Monday where Keefe told reporters he wouldn’t fall into this kind of trap. He was asked after practice if there was any temptation to start Andersen against both the Flyers and Avalanche.

"No," he said unequivocally. "That’s not something we think is in Fred’s best interest. It would be selfish of us to do this at this point. I mean there’s a big picture in mind here and right now our focus is to try to get our game as set up as good as possible so that it doesn’t really matter whose in the net."

Things obviously changed when Andersen made a passionate plea to the coaching staff after he called out the team following the loss in Philadelphia. But still. It’s not the first time this season he’s volunteered to play both ends of a back-to-back and it’s believed Mike Babcock wanted him to do that Nov. 16 in Pittsburgh when he was coaching for his job and Kasimir Kaskisuo made his NHL debut instead.

So why let it happen now?

Keefe has deliberately been far more flexible and empowering than Babcock — putting Mitch Marner on a line with Auston Matthews, bumping Tyson Barrie to the top power-play unit, mixing and matching defensive pairings that had previously been etched in stone — and this was a chance to follow suit with his top goaltender.

Still, even he had reservations while circling No. 31 on the lineup card.

"Sometimes circumstances will come up where the fight of the player will dictate what you’re going to do and you go against what your gut instinct tells you that you should do, and that’s what we’re doing here today," Keefe said two hours before puck drop. "We’re going to have to make some successions down the line to make up for it, in terms of probably getting him some days off that we wouldn’t have initially wanted to and that’s just the nature of the beast."

That’s not going to be easy with the hole they’ve dug. The Leafs sit 25th overall in points percentage and are well off their pace at the 30-game mark from the last two seasons:

Season Record after 30 games Points
2019-20 13-13-4 30
2018-19 20-9-1 41
2017-18 19-10-1 39

If you thought it was tough to sit Andersen in Game 30, imagine how difficult it’ll be in Games 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80. This team is going to have to grind its way to the playoffs after this bumpy start.

Earlier this week, general manager Kyle Dubas said he didn’t want to be "hasty" with any decisions on Hutchinson because there’s "always a regression to the mean to be had." He better hope so. Hutchinson has the worst save percentage among goaltenders currently on a NHL roster and the Leafs aren’t flush with the cap space needed to easily acquire a replacement if his play doesn’t rebound.

Then there’s the diminishing returns that come with potentially overplaying Andersen. There’s a legitimate risk of that happening given the team’s position in the standings and the fact he’s already tied for the league lead with 23 starts.

"He’s a warrior for our team. He does a lot," Marner said of Andersen. "He keeps us in it a lot of the nights, especially this year, we haven’t been great in front of him most nights and he’s the reason we won a lot of games."

Unfortunately, as good as he is, it’s just not possible for him to win them all.

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