This is supposed to be the Leafs' year, you’re told.
You’re told it by the bulk of hockey media in Canada, myself included, for a handful of what I see as pretty valid talking points. They’re currently in first on the backs of prime-aged superstars, their defence is the best it’s been with this core, and weaker versions of this team have pushed three straight playoff series the distance.
Combine that with their division being pillow-soft – how many teams would you call “Cup contenders,” after all – and an “all-in” deadline, and yeah, this is supposed to be the year Toronto makes some noise.
Goaltending is the most important piece of a hockey team’s foundation, though, and at this point the Leafs look like one of those beautiful beach homes built on stilts, only the stilts are super tall toothpicks.
When Toronto's goaltending is holding up, boy is this team ever a sight to behold. In those moments the team is something their fans can really enjoy. But people also enjoy watching demolitions – who among us hasn’t tuned in to see a building or two implode – and a beautiful home collapsing through a weak foundation is undoubtedly something fans of the other 30 NHL teams are tuning in for as the Leafs head towards the post-season. The winds are blowing, and it’s all starting to teeter.
On the heels of a half-dozen subpar goaltending performances in a row -- featuring an absolute stinker from David Rittich against the Canucks on Tuesday -- it’s time to take stock of just how dire the situation is. Let’s evaluate each of the three (and kind of four) options the Leafs have to start Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (most likely against likely the Montreal Canadiens) almost exactly a month from now.
Who’s it going to be and how’s it going to go?
What follows here is a lot of speculation, so take it with a grain of salt, but because the team is so tight-lipped with messaging it’s what we’re left to do.
Here’s the hard part with Freddy: it feels like he’s one foot out the door with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Zach Hyman is due a raise, and a big raise from his current $2.25 million dollar AAV (a $3 million yearly raise should be expected at a minimum), and in a salary cap league on a capped out team, that means someone has to go. They might choose to keep Freddy and find another solution if they were sure he could give them better than league average goaltending for some years ahead, but his play this season has been uninspiring, and his past inability to outplay the opposing team’s goaltender in the playoffs likely leaves him as the guy to go this off-season.
In sum, Toronto's best hope in net is probably on his last go with the team (barring say, an off-season Alex Kerfoot trade and Andersen accepting a pay cut with shorter term). By some accounts Andersen also feels like he played hurt this year when Jack Campbell was injured (and the Leafs needed someone to start), which led to some poor performances and partially to the situation he’s currently in now. He’d be justified in having some sour grapes here.
It also seems quite likely that they’ve asked him to “rest” as long as conceivably possible (right until playoffs?) for salary cap purposes, and that him agreeing to do so likely came with some sort of guarantee of not losing the net. You’re not supposed to lose your job to injury (and Campbell looking more human of late likely makes this a quick discussion anyway).
I don’t know how hurt Andersen remains, but he’s said to have a lower-body injury, and he’s been seen on the ice (and rollerblading!) recently, so he’s probably gonna be OK in the weeks ahead here.
So Freddy’s gonna get the net, and it feels like the fate of the Leafs will hinge on how he performs after all this time off. That’s some pickle the team is in given how a sect of fans feels about his past playoff performances, to say nothing of this season.
Whether he’s with the Leafs next year or not, Andersen is greatly incentivized to play well when he returns. His next contract could swing in the millions of dollars per year, and in term, based on his play the rest of the way.
Freddy is a historically slow starter to seasons. October is consistently a down month for him, but once he finds his stride he tends to hit stretches of his best play a few weeks into the season. Could that trend play itself out after a long absence like this?
If the Leafs can him through the first round, you’d have to love how they’d be positioned in front of an Andersen with less wear from the season, while putting the “early season” rust behind him.
That “if” sure looms large, though, doesn’t it?
What’s hard in this conversation is a favourite saying of my co-host Jeff Marek’s, that “fair” doesn’t really exist. You don’t get what’s fair, you get what you negotiate, and we’re all at the mercy of life and luck. In a fair world, at some point Jack Campbell would be given the chance to be an NHL starter, because he’s played well enough in spot duty to warrant a try. He’s got a .919 save percentage this season, which is slightly better than his career .917. But given where the Leafs are in their window of hopeful Cup contention, the time for his “fair” is not now.
The category on the right is save percentage, this is Campbell’s March to date:
Two high quality showings and five duds below .900, including four in a row. Now, every good goalie has stretches like that, so there’s no need to overreact, but hopefully it at least quiets the calls for Campbell to lead the team into playoffs as the No. 1.
My thoughts on Campbell are that he’s athletic and scrappy, and that he’s legitimately a good goaltender. He’s 10th in the NHL right now in “goals saved above expected” (and a few spots better if you adjust for minutes played), and again, he probably warrants a bigger opportunity. But more players are handed bigger roles and fail than succeed, and I don’t think the Leafs can have their Plan A be “let’s see what this guy can do in the playoffs.” He hasn’t been able to stay healthy, pucks are going through him a bit more often now that he’s playing as much as his health will allow, and he just feels like too big of a gamble with the stakes as high as they are.
If Freddy falters, they have a legitimate goaltender who might be able to do something like what Anton Khudobin did for Dallas last season. But Dallas’ plan was never to start Khudobin, because he wasn’t their best goalie. I see the Leafs situation as comparable.
Rittich has posted seasons in the NHL where he’s finished around league average or better, and has a career save percentage of .907, which is just below average for a starting goalie over those years. You'll take that in a third-string goaltender.
The weird debate I’ve heard here is that Rittich isn’t better than Michael Hutchinson, which I don’t agree with. The latter played no more than five NHL games for three straight seasons (2016-2019), then got a big run with the Leafs (15 games) in which he was terrible, before having a run of a good eight games this season. Rittich has started 133 games in that time, posting an incrementally better save percentage (and hey, he made an all-star team!).
The point is: is it worth having the slightly better third goalie at the cost of a third-round pick? I’d say yes. Success isn’t only measured in Cup-or-bust, not for a team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2004. And I do feel the Leafs are still good enough to beat any of Montreal or Winnipeg or Edmonton with David Rittich in net, assuming he plays like he generally has, and not like he’s played since being a Leaf.
It’s possible the transition to Toronto will be too much to get “good Rittich” this season, what with the COVID-wracked season, his previous commitment to the Flames organization, and the pressure. That would’ve been impossible to predict, though.
They made the right move in bringing him over, and if he has to go in, the Leafs would still have a chance to come out of the North Division. I’ll leave it there for their ceiling with him in net, however.
In the end, Freddy Andersen is still the Leafs' guy, as this run of recent play has reminded fans. And sure, there’s reason why that might make them nervous. They remain an attractively constructed group that’s fun to gawk at, because it’s either going to work and be awesome, or it’s all going to come crashing down on a weak foundation in dramatic fashion.