The Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen put on a new mask painted with a blue brick wall. It was his first game in 48 days. He suited up for the Toronto Marlies on Thursday to start a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League. It’s his first time in the AHL since 2014. The Toronto Marlies are not good; if you doubled their point production, they wouldn’t have enough to be in first place. But they are good at giving their goalies a workout. In the previous game, they gave up 60 shots.
The Manitoba Moose wanted to test Andersen early. The Marlies were more than happy to oblige by giving up the puck twice in the first two minutes to allow clean looks and quality shots from within 20 feet. Andersen looked back on the first one, absorbed the second, he stopped another too. The first five minutes were in the books. But at the 6:12 mark, the Marlies turned the puck over again. With four blue shirts in pursuit, Manitoba’s Jeff Malott went five-hole on Andersen. One minute and 41 seconds later, Manitoba’s Ty Pelton-Byces scored his first professional goal, beating Andersen low, right side. Luckily he seemed to settle in after that. He turned away the next nine shots before being pulled just shy of 31 minutes of ice-time.
Andersen explained what he was thinking after allowing two goals on the first five shots faced, “I felt rusty in the first and early in the game and just trusting myself. That got better as we went on in the game. Knowing my spots and be more calm and quiet with my feet – small things like that.” Andersen said it’s part of a process, but his injured knee held up. “Really good actually, we will see how it responds and keep going. It’s a good way to get in the game action and test it out.”
Hoping For Marlies Magic with Recovery
The last time the Maple Leafs sent a starting goalie to the AHL mid-season for conditioning, it turned things around. In 2015-16, Jonathan Bernier was sporting a horrendous 0-8-1 record, and a .888 save percentage. However, he set a franchise record for consecutive shutouts with three straight and recorded a tie in his fourth game. He was 3-0-1 and had an impressive .948 save percentage. Bernier went on to post a 12-13-2 record and finish the season with a .908 save percentage.
Earlier this season, the Maple Leafs assigned Alex Galchenyuk to the Marlies. It was the first time Galchenyuk played in the AHL. After eight games, he returned to the NHL and was slotted into the top six, which he has kept since. Marlies head coach Greg Moore liked what he saw from Andersen, “he was great. Obviously, it’s been a while for him. His attitude and his energy coming in was really positive. He was really happy to get into a game. Couldn’t have asked for anything more from him. It was good for our players to see his professionalism.”
Keefe Wants to Make Tough Decision
But did the Maple Leafs’ brass see what they wanted? Sheldon Keefe said the conditioning schedule will be reassessed after the game. He says the plan is to get Andersen back to the game ready and there is no timeline on his return. “In terms of the playoffs or anything like that, I don’t have to make that decision here today. I don’t have all the information. I’m not going to make it or make any statement on it other than to say that Fred’s making his way back and Jack Campbell’s been playing extremely well. His confidence is growing and our team’s confidence in him is growing.”
As good as Campbell is doing, Keefe welcomes a battle for the top spot in the net. “I hope to have to make a difficult decision when the time comes because the one thing that is really, really clear is that the strength and the depth of our goaltending have grown significantly over the last number of months. I look forward to making tough decisions.”
At this point, Andersen is a long way from making it a tough decision for his coach. Andersen, while playing through an injury, has had the worst season of his pro career. Campbell has had his best and seems to be fully recovered from the injuries that impacted his play earlier this season. Andersen says he is trusting the process and believes he will get back to his best. There is no doubt he will improve, but will he reach that top level in time for the playoffs remains the big question.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.