Is the Maple Leafs’ Goaltending the Team’s Achilles Heel?

During the last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost two tough back-to-back games. Starting goalie Frederik Andersen played in both and couldn’t bring home a victory in either game.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Goalies & Spezza

During the first game, against a surprisingly good Philadelphia Flyers team, the Maple Leafs gave up five straight goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period to lose 6-1. The team seemed to quit on the besieged goalie, and his teammate Auston Matthews said as much after the game.

Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

The second game of the back-to-back would have been Michael Hutchinson’s game to start, but Andersen was reported to have pleaded with the coaching staff on the airplane back to Toronto and started both games for the first time in 43 back-to-backs since 2017.

From a pure entertainment perspective, that game was an example of why hockey fans love hockey so much. It was a track meet back and forth between two really good teams. Although Andersen played a great game, he lost again on the cruelest of fates – a “miscue” by veteran Jason Spezza that led to a shorthanded breakaway and a brilliant goal by Colorado Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin.

Both losses were against good hockey teams. One game was a complete team collapse, and in the other game the hockey gods spoke and it wasn’t the answer the Maple Leafs wanted. From my perspective, it wasn’t so much a mental breakdown by Spezza; it was just a play he’d probably never seen before at any level of hockey since he was a child and he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not a fault, really, just bad luck.

Does the Goalie Situation Warrant a Move?

To answer my own rhetorical question, I simply don’t know. I don’t believe it’s time to give up the collective vision general manager Kyle Dubas and new head coach Sheldon Keefe have about how Maple Leafs hockey should be played. To my eyes, the Maple Leafs are playing better hockey under Keefe than they did under now-departed Mike Babcock.

Related: Tavares Scores OT Winner to Lift the Maple Leafs past the Sabres 2-1

So, personally I see no reason to hit the panic button and start abandoning ship. Really, what would that look like anyway?

The one move most hockey pundits believe the Maple Leafs must address is the backup goalie situation. Over the last week, speculation increased that Dubas was looking to upgrade his backup to Andersen because Hutchinson and rookie Kasimir Kaskisuo have lost all seven starts this season. Still, outwardly Dubas hasn’t been rattled.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Dubas noted, “We are always looking at the trade market every day for every position.” Then he added specifically about the backup goalie situation, “What I would really like more than anything is for us to put together a good game in front of Michael in the coming stretch and give him an opportunity as well. I thought he was outstanding in the first period against Buffalo, and I think we got a little bit sloppy thereafter.”

In fact, Keefe had reported prior to the back-to-back road game in Philadelphia and the home game against Colorado that Andersen would play on Tuesday at the Flyers’ Wells Fargo Center and Hutchinson would get the start at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. As I noted, the only reason the change was made was to accommodate Andersen’s desire to show he was in the battle working together with his teammates.

Having followed Dubas two seasons now, is his vote of confidence in Hutchinson an indication the team doesn’t have the salary-cap space to pursue a stronger backup option? In retrospect, waiving Curtis McElhinney more than a year ago now seems a mistake.

That said, the salary-cap structure that plagues the team because of the number of high-value contracts puts them in a box. For example, the Montreal Canadiens placed goalie Keith Kinkaid on waivers, but his $1.75 million contract wouldn’t work given the team’s current cap situation and claiming a player would put the Maple Leafs at the maximum 50 pro contracts.

Still, the talk is all about a backup goalie.

On Friday, Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen discussed the need for the Maple Leafs to solve the backup goalie problem. What’s so interesting is that among the 10 options he suggests is former Maple Leafs’ fan target Garret Sparks. It isn’t that I didn’t like Sparks and for a time he had a great record as the team’s backup, but bringing back Sparks seems to be a move backward. Boylen’s other suggestions include goalies such as Ryan Miller, Casey DeSmith, Tristan Jarry, Jack Campbell, and Collin Delia.

Related: THW’s Goalie News: Week in Review, What Just Happened, and More

[As a personal aside, I know the Miller family a bit and believe that Ryan won’t leave the Los Angeles area because his wife is in the entertainment business and he took a reduced salary to play there. He’d retire if he were traded, I believe.]

Brian Burke Supports a Trade

Brian Burke weighed in on the situation and suggested that, unless the team can find a goalie other than Andersen who can win a game this season, they simply won’t make the playoffs. That’s a good point. If, for example, Hutchinson had gone 3-3 in his games the team would be sitting at 16-10-3 and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Hutchinson New Jersey Devils Miles Wood
Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Hutchinson stops New Jersey Devils Miles Wood. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Burke also noted that the Maple Leafs would likely have to give up a lot to get goaltending help, because every other team believes the Maple Leafs know they can’t win without improving the backup situation. Burke believes, “It’s beyond price. You’re going to have to overpay. And I would do that — and if Kyle does that I will not criticize him.”

Finally, Burke suggested on the Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Good Show. “If he [Dubas] has to give up a second-round pick or a good kid to solve this issue… because this is their Achilles heel. This is a fatal flaw for this team making the playoffs, if they don’t address this.”

Where Does the Team Stand, Really?

Is it too early for Toronto Maple Leafs fans to be concerned that the team won’t make the playoffs? If the team doesn’t get a backup goaltender it trusts, will they make the playoffs on the back of Frederik Andersen just to see him overworked and worn out for the long playoff run?

Related: Maple Leafs Team News: Bettman, Tavares, Hyman, Rielly & Barrie

Those are questions Maple Leafs fans face these days, and they also haunt the team. Sitting right now at a record of 13-13-4, one thing is certain. Sooner or later, the team must make a run where it wins substantially more games than it loses. Can they do it with the goalies they have?

That’s the big question. However, seriously, the team might be in a situation where it has no other choice than to ride with the goalies it has. What I would really like to see is the team’s offense to rise up and simply overwhelm the other team’s goalie when Hutchinson is playing. Doing that enough times would solve everything.