That was a helluva season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and any attempt to suggest otherwise is just foolish.
It was another step forward. More learning for their young players, including the advancement of Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen to the big leagues, apparently for good. A record number of points and wins. A strong season by James van Riemsdyk in the last year of his contract. Another 30-goal campaign from Nazem Kadri. Good years offensively from Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. A workhorse season from Freddie Andersen in net.
All in all, progress. From 30th to 14th to sixth overall. This remains a young team on the rise, and the disappointment of losing Game 7 to Boston on Wednesday night doesn’t change that.
But it does change a few things.
A loss is a loss and can’t be dressed up like a victory. In seven games against Boston, it would be hard to say the Leafs played their strongest game for more than five or six periods. At least half the time, it seemed, they were under siege in their own end.
Things were revealed about the club, and the key for Lou Lamoriello and his group is to fit those revelations into the overall performance of individual players over the last two or three seasons. For example, it would be absurd to decide Gardiner must go now because he had a bad night on Wednesday. You don’t dismiss all the good things he’s done, the ways in which he has progressed.
Might he be traded? Sure, but not because the mob is screaming for his neck. Because that’s what mobs do. Kadri’s suspension hurt the team, and that will be evaluated within the context of his overall season. Cap considerations, meanwhile, will dictate the futures of JVR, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov outside of how they did or did not deliver against Boston. Komarov wasn’t even in the lineup at the end.
The goaltending situation, meanwhile, is among the most complex, and what the Leafs do in this regard before next season will be interesting.
There was a great deal of foolish chatter about how Andersen should have been a candidate for the Hart or Vezina, but the truth is his numbers just don’t get him into that upper echelon of netminders. He has had basically the same statistical regular season two years in a row, which essentially puts him into the upper half of goalies who play more than 50 games a season.
He’s a very good, reliable regular season goalie, and on a very affordable ticket at $5 million a season for three more seasons.
The bad news is he was lousy against Boston. You can’t hide an .896 save percentage. Covering up for the mistakes of others is the very definition of his job, and he did it notably well in Games 5 and 6, and that’s it. That’s not even close to good enough. At 28 years old, he is in his prime, and based on the past two playoff seasons, he has defined himself as a very good goalie in the regular season who falls off a little or a lot in the post-season when the competition gets tougher.
For the Leafs to become more than a first round casualty, they are going to require better goaltending. The question is whether Andersen is the man to deliver it. Certainly, his play in this series suggests he isn’t, but not to such a degree that it’s reasonable to advocate that he needs to go elsewhere. He’s established essentially what he is at this level, and while he might still have another level to his game, he also might not. The Leafs need to upgrade that position, and sitting around just hoping the Dane gets better seems like a very passive approach.
There’s a few ways to achieve an upgrade.
One, they can elevate Garrett Sparks, the AHL’s top goalie, and give him 30 games next season. Two, they could give this year’s backup, Curtis McElhinney, more work next season, at least partially to give Andersen more rest. Or, they could go out, either through free agency or trade, and get another goalie to compete with Andersen.
The number of options here are too many to count. There are 16 teams who missed the playoffs who might want better goalkeeping next year, and now another eight clubs who lost in the first round that may be convinced they need better performances between the pipes.
But it seems logical that having allowed Andersen to play without meaningful internal competition the past two years, now’s the time to find out whether having another goalie compete with him for minutes might motivate him and keep him more rested.
Again, this isn’t only one element the improving Leafs need to evaluate. You can’t say Andersen lost the series to the Bruins, but he sure didn’t come close to winning it, either.
This is a hockey team that is going to improve as its young players mature, but also one that will have holes to fill because of the cap and will also want to find ways to get better, particularly defensively and with penalty killing. Of the eight remaining teams, five were better defensive teams than the Leafs this season.
Goaltending is a big part of that. Andersen certainly can’t be exempt from the hard analysis that Toronto’s front office will have to do over the next few months to get this team past the first round a year from now. Sure he stopped a lot of rubber this season. That’s what he’s paid to do. But it doesn’t mean you don’t examine all possible ways to give this team better goaltending when it matters most next season.