Andersen's challenging season could be blessing in disguise for Leafs

Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen talks about how great it feels to be back at practice with the team, says there's still no real timeline for a return, but he hopes and plans to get in some games before the start of the playoffs.

TORONTO — Seeing Frederik Andersen get through his first practice with the Toronto Maple Leafs in more than five weeks was newsworthy, but it wasn’t the most significant development of the afternoon.

It was the way Andersen carried himself over more than 90 minutes of on-ice work Monday that offered the best hint at where this goes next.

There was an undeniable lightness to how he went about his business, which stretched on a good half hour after most of his teammates had already left the sheet. Andersen even seemed at ease during his first time speaking with reporters since last playing on March 19, confirming that he’s been sidelined with a knee issue and stating a desire to get in some game action before the playoffs.

“I still have some time to get up to speed again,” he said.

Leaving aside for a moment the mechanics of what that return might look like, it’s worth ruminating on how this season has affected the workhorse goaltender. This has been a challenging campaign with the physical setbacks and underperformance — linked to some degree, no doubt — but it may also come to include blessings in disguise.

Those include the emergence of Jack Campbell and his stellar 13-2-1 record, which on the surface only seem to threaten Andersen’s grip on the crease. But Campbell’s play has also allowed the Leafs to continue humming along at the top of the North Division while providing Andersen with much-needed rest and recuperation, shifting some of the burden from his shoulders in the process.

He’s carried the torch as the all-or-nothing option in Toronto for four-plus seasons. Only Connor Hellebuyck has made more than Andersen’s 266 regular-season starts dating back to 2016-17 and he’s been the goalie of record in all 25 playoff games the Leafs have played in the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner Era.

While that streak is almost certain to end at some point in the coming weeks, it’s arguably not the worst outcome for a 31-year-old who should be feeling physically fresh when the playoff bell rings.

There’s been some relief baked into this injury absence because Andersen was trying and failing to play through discomfort before it began. He lost five of six starts culminating with a four-goals-against-on-18-shots performance against the Calgary Flames before shutting it down.

“I reached a point where I just couldn’t kind of feel confident in the net. And pushing and stopping as hard as I needed to, to be aggressive,” said Andersen. “I think it showed. I mean it’s really hard to say stop — I think as a player and as a competitor you don’t want to admit or kind of say stop yourself.

“It was maybe going on for a little bit too long and … I was just happy that I caught it before (anything else happened) and it didn’t get any worse.”

After a couple weeks off the ice entirely, Andersen resumed skating around the same time the Leafs made the trade to acquire David Rittich for goaltending insurance. He then received a big mental boost last week by joining the team on its road trip through Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Now seemingly on track to re-enter the picture at the most crucial point of the year, he’s encouraged by the way his body is starting to feel. And the possibility of a Campbell/Andersen tandem is mighty appealing for the Leafs ahead of a Stanley Cup Playoffs likely to include some back-to-back games.

“It’s great for team morale having him around,” said Alexander Kerfoot. “He’s obviously an outstanding goaltender in this league, he’s been the backbone of this team for a while now and it’s great having him back.”

Added Jake Muzzin: “It’s nice to see Fred back. He’s in good spirits, he’s looking good.”

With only eight regular-season games remaining and the Leafs using the long-term injury provision to exceed the salary cap ceiling, it’s unlikely we see Andersen get NHL minutes before the post-season. The most likely path back for him includes a conditioning loan to the American Hockey League before he’s cleared and activated from LTIR.

It will be Campbell’s net if and when that happens, but there’s bound to be added comfort in having him as an option should things go awry.

Remember that this will be a rested Andersen and a less-pressured Andersen — two things we’ve never previously seen during playoffs in Toronto. Perhaps this whole experience has been freeing, too, especially with free agency looming in July.

Andersen was asked if the desire to play for that next contract was fuelling his return to the ice now.

“Not really, because I think I know what I’m worth. I know I’m a great goalie,” said Andersen. “I think the biggest part is what we’ve got going on here on the team. I think we have really special opportunities here to do something special this year. I think the group we have here is amazing, they’ve done a lot of hard work and it’s rolling well.

“The biggest motivator for me is just being part of that. I want to contribute to that and I want to be with the group.”

After what he’s been through, it’s all gravy from here.

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