The 2018-19 season brought the Toronto Maple Leafs a problem they are all too familiar with, and no, it’s not their lack of a right shooting D… it is the Goalie Conundrum.
As the leaves get ready to turn colours, fall is right around the corner, bringing with it the beginning of the 2019-2020 season. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it brings back last year’s issue of who is worthy of backing up Danish Goalie God Frederik Andersen, the trusty starter of the past three seasons. The 6’4 netminder has held keep of the Leafs’ net for 192 games, and has stood on his head just about each and every time, with a 2.75 GAA in the three years he’s played for the Leafs and a save percentage of .917 with 6221 shots against in total. It’s safe to say the team is well off with Andersen between the pipes for the most part.
But Andersen is human and wears out eventually, so it’s crucial that the Leafs have a backup who can bring the same skill and be a reliable option to give good old Fred a break.
The Leafs have toyed with this a lot in the past; 2016-2018 saw waiver pickup, Curtis McElhinney, playing backup, and doing an alright job considering his 2.14 GAA, and .934 save percentage. The Leafs’ goalie depth was once a force to be reckoned with— a star starter, steady backup, and AHL level players like Garret Sparks, who was named the top American Hockey League Goalie of the 2018 season, and his backup, Kasimir Kaskisuo.
But in the fall of 2018, McElhinney was put back on waivers, and went on to the Carolina Hurricanes. This time frame also saw Calvin Pickard picked up off waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers, leaving Sparks in the backup spot for the Leafs for the rest of the 2018-19 season.
I’m not going to sugar coat it— Sparks performed with complete mediocrity at best and like he was drowning at worst. Coming into the season with big shoes to fill and previous expectations, he had a high bar to meet and he missed entirely.
The dread that would fill me seeing him start in net was overwhelming. It’s not that he’s a bad goalie; he earned his AHL Goalie of the Year title and has a Calder Cup under his belt— he’s just not on an NHL level yet, and this was obvious given the way he flailed between the pipes. After under-performing all season, Sparks got an early bench, player rehab, and eventually a trade to Vegas after an eight-year run with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
That leaves the Leafs goalie roster with steady Freddie up top, midseason acquisition and NHL experienced Michael Hutchinson, and the AHL’s Kasimir Kaskisuo. This summer also brought in Michal Neuvirth on a professional tryout (PTO) contract.
Although Neuvirth dealt with injury for the majority of the 18-19 season, playing only seven games with the Philadelphia Flyers, and while he doesn’t necessarily have all that impressive career numbers with a 105-93-26 record, a .910 save percentage and a GAA of 2.71 in 257 NHL games played, he does bring something to the table that Sparks didn’t— League experience. it’s hard to argue that Neuvirth’s 11 seasons in the NHL, with more than one team, isn’t a near necessity in a backup for someone at the skill level of Andersen.
He knows what’s going to be coming at him; he’s 31; he’s comfortable, and sure, he’s not a superstar, but as a placeholder every now and then? I could handle that.
All stats and numbers used were collected from hockey-refrence.com
Hutchinson is the other viable option for a backup who possesses similar traits of being a league veteran with multiple team experience and not the worst numbers. He showed up when Sparks and Andersen were both struggling through intermittent injury, played his few up in the NHL for the Leafs and continued on to put up great numbers as the Marlies starter. But once again he has loads of previous experience in the league, and although Hutch has had his fair share of ups and downs in career, he has proven himself to be reliable as a backup.
There are also prospects in like Eamon McAdams in the ECHL and 2016 draft Justin Wol, who was signed to an ELC this past March and is appearing in the prospects tournament. Other goalie prospects like Ian Scott and Maskim Zhukov are also working— the depth is there, the question is just whether it gets utilized to its full capacity or not. With Sparks off in Vegas battling it out with Malcom Subban, the question now is, who is backing up Andersen? If I had it my way, I’d like to see it go something along the lines of,
Toronto Maple Leafs:
That’s just with active goalies playing in the league, without the potential options of prospects and drafts entering the system for conditioning in lower leagues. It will truly be interesting to see how Babcock sorts his Goalie roster come training camp and preseason.
Here’s hoping that whatever is ultimately decided will aid in giving Andersen well deserved breaks and keep consistency between the pipes.