Read your favourite hockey blog, scroll through social media, or tune into talk radio and chances are you’ll hear Frederik Andersen’s name come up in conversation regarding who’s been the Toronto Maple Leafs’ MVP this season.
And you could certainly argue that there is some merit to those discussions given that the netminder was named to the Atlantic Division All-Star Team a couple of weeks ago, and that he’s second in the NHL for wins among goaltenders with 21, just one behind Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jordan Binnington.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll find that while the Maple Leafs have legitimately been one of the best teams in the NHL since Sheldon Keefe took over in late November, they would be winning even more if Andersen was on his game.
What exactly has gone wrong for the usually steady Freddy this season?
Dissecting Andersen’s Performance
The 30-year-old Andersen is in his fourth season with the Maple Leafs and has gained a reputation as a bit of a streaky goaltender. More specifically, he’s become well known for his sluggish starts in October, Vezina-like bounce-backs in November, and then relatively consistent performances the rest of the way.
He’s been so consistent year-to-year that his save percentage generally doesn’t waver much, if at all: over the last four seasons he’s put up marks of .919, .918, .918, and .917. That’s generally good enough to get him into the top-10 among starters across the league, and you can even give him some bonus points for his intense workload as he’s averaged 64 games in his three seasons in Toronto. In fact, Andersen has played more games than any other goalie in the league since he came to Toronto with 228 appearances. He’s also faced about 500 more shots and made about 500 more saves than any other goaltender over that span.
So once again, the brownie points are valid and Andersen has definitely earned some leeway.
The problem this season, though, is that the Dane’s game has fallen off beyond the threshold of what should reasonably be expected, and that’s despite some pretty significant defensive improvements in front of him.
Andersen hasn’t been his usual self for most of the season, playing just one month of good hockey so far which has led to a subpar save percentage of .912 – 13th among goalies with at least 20 appearances. His record of 21-8-5 is more an indication of how good the Maple Leafs’ players have been this season, rather than the result of the netminder’s play.
If we dig into the expected numbers, Andersen fares even worse. Just like you can measure the expected goals for a team or player based on the quality and quantity of chances, you can flip it the other way and determine how many saves a goaltender should make based on the number of expected goals they face. According to Money Puck, Andersen ranks 28th in save percentage above expected among goalies with at least 20 games played with a mark of minus-0.473 percent.
That’s not horrible by any means (he’s letting in half a percent more than he should), and there are plenty of marquee names who are doing much worse (Jonathan Quick, Martin Jones, Pekka Rinne, Devan Dubnyk, and Matt Murray are all around minus-1.00 percent). But for the Maple Leafs who rely so much on steady goaltending, and for Andersen who has proved to be a consistent backstop, it’s certainly disappointing. And more than that, it’s holding the team back.
The Maple Leafs’ Defence Deserves Better
Much has been made about the Maple Leafs’ roster makeup and how it isn’t conducive to team defence. After all, they’re paying their top-four forwards over $40 million per season combined – nearly half of the salary cap – and they really only have one true defensive stalwart on the blue line in Jake Muzzin. Some of that narrative is grounded in reality, given that the Maple Leafs ranked bottom-five in terms of shots against (29th), scoring chances against (29th), and expected goals against (27th) last season at 5-on-5 – but things have changed pretty drastically this season.
Now past the halfway mark of the season, Toronto has improved to 22nd in shots against per hour, 16th in scoring chances against per hour, and 19th in expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5. Under Keefe they look even better, moving up to 12th in expected goals against per hour – tied with the defensively sound New York Islanders. In other words, the Maple Leafs have gone from a dreadful defensive team to an average if not respectable one.
Given their offensive output, which ranks first in the league with four goals per game under Keefe, that kind of team defence should be good enough to rack up a ton of points. And the Maple Leafs have racked up points, of course, with a remarkable record of 15-6-2 since the coaching change. The fact of the matter, though, is that they could actually be doing even better, and they would be doing better if they were getting even average goaltending from Andersen.
Take the team’s recent skid, for instance: the Maple Leafs are 0-2-1 in their last three games and have been outscored 18-11 in the process. Surely giving up 18 goals in three games should lie primarily on the shoulders on the defence. Well, that’s true for the game against the Edmonton Oilers as the Maple Leafs had a legitimate stinker, giving up 41 scoring chances and 4.37 expected goals against. In the last two games against Winnipeg and Florida, though, Toronto actually controlled well over 60 percent of the expected goal share and surrendered just 1.27 and 2.54 expected goals respectively. Believe it or not, they actually dominated Florida in terms of shots (47-29) and chances (40-22), but everything the Panthers threw at the net went in. And after allowing four goals on just 12 shots, Andersen was pulled for the second time in three games.
While it’s certainly easy to point at a tiny sample size of a game or three and argue that Andersen needs to be better, the issue has clearly become more than just a cold streak. The Great Dane has performed below expectations for the majority of the season and now with all the injuries on the backend, the Maple Leafs will need him more than ever.
If Andersen can’t turn things around pretty quickly, the team may need to consider some pretty substantial additions at the upcoming trade deadline.