Toronto Maple Leafs writers are engaging in exceedingly earnest conversations about who the team should trade to solve its backup goalie issue as the team works to make the playoffs. The narrative goes something like this: Michael Hutchinson doesn’t inspire confidence and the team needs someone better. That story is then followed by a myriad of speculation about who that someone-better should be and who the team must sacrifice to obtain that goalie.
Just this morning, in reading other writers’ blogs I read that either Corey Crawford or Robin Lehner might be available from the Chicago Blackhawks. Then I read that the New York Rangers’ Alexandar Georgiev is in play. In fact, the writer noted that “everyone and their extended family is dead set on acquiring the soon to be 24-year-old New York Rangers backup goaltender.”
Even the big hockey insiders are involving themselves in the conversation. For example, Elliotte Friedman weighed in that the asking price for the Maple Leafs would probably have to be more than Jeremy Bracco. Then, Darren Dreger tweeted that it might even be more than Kasperi Kapanen. While I think both these insiders are smart guys, we might disagree on what the Maple Leafs should do.
Why These Conversations Don’t Matter
Frankly, this conversation is ridiculous. A backup goalie isn’t that important during the playoffs. Unless something drastically goes awry, his only job is to give the starting goalie a rest during the regular season. Once a team makes the playoffs, there are no more back-to-back games and your starter gets as much rest as the other guy. Obviously, all that changes if your starter’s injured; however, in that situation, everything changes.
Specifically, if Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen were injured, the team would obviously have to start another goalie. And, right now there’s likely no one in the entire organization who’s capable of carrying the load Andersen carries. Likely, should Andersen get hurt, the team’s chances are toast and the season would be chalked up to the hockey gods being angry. Fortunately, that seldom happens and the starter usually completes the playoffs.
In my memory, although perhaps there’s more I forget, the only season where a backup goalie played excessively was in 2005-06 when the Edmonton Oilers made a great run at the Stanley Cup title with the well-traveled veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson who got hot just at the right time and carried the upstart Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final. (In those days, I was a professor at the University of Alberta and a huge Oilers fan, so I recall it well.)
Sadly, for the Oilers, Roloson was injured in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Carolina Hurricanes and backup Jussi Markkanen became the goalie of record. He played well enough, but the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in seven games. Had Roloson not been injured, the outcome might have been different. But, it wasn’t. That’s how the hockey gods work.
Interestingly, during that same season, the Hurricanes also had goalie issues. For most of the season, Martin Gerber carried the load. But, during the postseason, Gerber lost it and was replaced after going 0-2 against the Montreal Canadiens during the first round. Ironically, his replacement was Sherwood Park lad (a bedroom community of Edmonton) Cam Ward, who was 22 years old at the time. Ward carried the Hurricanes to the title.
By the way, and I’m only half-joking here: Where’s Ward now? If Hutchinson isn’t to be trusted, why not someone who’s been through the playoff wars and knows the rigors of the struggle first-hand? I recall that question emerging before the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs when the Rangers went after 40-year-old Curtis Joseph as their backup goalie just before the playoffs, but he eventually signed with the Calgary Flames.
What I’m saying is that, if Hutchinson simply isn’t trusted, the idea of seeking a playoff-hardened, aging goalie has been considered before. That might be a better tactic than trading away valuable young prospects to fill a position that historically hasn’t been much of an issue in the postseason playoffs.
A Backup Goalie for Jeremy Bracco? That’s Acceptable
When the Maple Leafs rumors first started a few weeks ago, Jeremy Bracco was dangled as trade bait. That trade makes more sense to me. Bracco is stuck low in the Maple Leafs food chain with too many other right-wingers in front of him to make the big club. He has potential, but he’s clearly excess in the same way Josh Leivo was excess last season before general manager Kyle Dubas traded him to the Vancouver Canucks. Although he’s currently injured, Leivo had potential that would never be used in the Maple Leafs organization and now he’s a valuable part of the Canucks’ roster.
That seems fair. Bracco’s that same kind of player. And, Dubas has been good about trading youngsters with potential when they can’t make his team. Trading Bracco to the Rangers for a backup goalie might work because he’s from Long Island and is a hometown boy. He has flaws, but his success scoring in the AHL makes him a prospect with an NHL future. If he isn’t in the Maple Leafs’ future plans, trade him rather than trade someone who clearly is in the plans.
Michael Hutchinson Is Good Enough for Now
Like other Maple Leafs players, Hutchinson has experienced two different seasons – one with Mike Babcock as the coach and the second with Sheldon Keefe as the coach. During the first part of the season, like Babcock or not, he put Hutchinson in difficult situations by playing him in every second game of a back-to-back. Hutchinson didn’t play well. Who would have given the way the team was playing then?
Things have improved under Keefe. Hutchinson’s been given opportunities Babcock never offered him and he’s responded. Not counting the mop-up games where he’s taken over when Andersen’s poor play had already put his team behind the 8-ball, he’s been 3-0-0 with a .945 save percentage in the games he has started. That’s plenty good enough for a backup goalie on anyone’s team.
In a nice article where Maple Leafs’ writer Jeff Veillette of Faceoff Circle weighs and measures Rangers’ backup goalie Georgiev as a potential trade candidate, Veillette put it better than I could so I cite him here: “I am increasingly convinced that giving up assets to ‘solve the backup problem’ is a fool’s errand.”
He and I are in total agreement. We both believe the Maple Leafs should not trade away great young players to fill a spot that – and this is my point – probably won’t matter much in a long playoff run. I like this Maple Leafs team and I think they can make the playoffs. Where they go during the playoffs, in my opinion, has little to do with the backup goalie.
If Andersen stays healthy, a 72-year-old former university professor who’s waiting for a hip replacement would be an effective understudy.