As the Toronto Maple Leafs look to move past their failures of 2019-20, what they accomplish next season will be dictated by their success in net.
For a team sport with many facets of the game that impact results, it’s intriguing when one area finds a way to stand out and define a club’s success. For this current version of the Toronto Maple Leafs, their goaltending demands that spotlight.
No, it’s not to say that the rest of their lineup is irrelevant. With an underproducing offense, this narrative would be a lot different. Yet, the Maple Leafs scored an average of nearly three and a half goals per game through 2019-20. That’s clearly not their issue.
Besides, a forward group that includes Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander won’t have a tough time finding the back of the net. When you add former first overall pick Auston Matthews, who is progressing his goal-scoring prowess, production will come at will.
On the flip side, having allowed nearly the same amount on their own net per game, obviously the defensive side of their strategy wasn’t as strong as it needed to be. Even their most loyal fans would admit to witnessing backend blunders far too often last season.
Toronto’s play in their own zone just wasn’t consistent enough to defend, let alone manage the game effectively. However, the finger-pointing needs to stretch beyond Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. Teams have goalies for a reason, after all.
Where Freddy Failed
Frederik Andersen had arguably his worst campaign through 2019-20. From a statistical perspective, his goals against average of 2.85 was the highest of his career while a save percentage of .909 was the lowest he’s earned to date.
Toronto needed him to be better. Andersen certainly did not provide the ideal ingredients to the lineup’s recipe last year. Yet, the Maple Leafs’ defensive failures aren’t solely on Andersen in the same way Rielly shouldn’t take all the blame either.
With that said, Kyle Dubas has been busy this offseason hoping to address his team’s needs. He’s succeeded, as far as we can tell, but the true test will come when next season is underway and these moves have their chance to be proven as the right ones.
Leveraging a Loaded Lineup
Dubas effectively adapted to recognizing what was missing within Toronto’s mix, when he went out and acquired who he did. Every part of the Maple Leafs’ roster has been impacted, improving their offense, revising their defense, and even adding goaltending support.
This was already a lineup poised to be one of the highest-scoring in the league, which is only fuelled with proven producers like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds. Let alone the full cast of complementary additions alongside them.
Looking at the defensive end of their bench, the Toronto Maple Leafs had some work to do. Dubas took care of that in securing T.J. Brodie, while in his prime, for the foreseeable future. Where he propelled those efforts was in acquiring Zach Bogosian for minimal term and cost next season.
Dubas even picked up Aaron Dell and Michael Hutchinson to deepen their goaltending pool. Although, it’s still very much Andersen’s net to lose. For now.
Incoming Improvements Next Season
With the Toronto Maple Leafs already showcasing their affinity for scoring through recent years, the real gaps in their play have become increasingly obvious. Toronto’s defensive systems haven’t been structured effectively and their goaltending has been inconsistent.
One of those areas is now been positioned to show a dramatic jump in quality next year. The other is up for debate. It will be on Andersen to bounce back and be better than he’s recently been, while finding a new tier of play to progress into.
Toronto might be marginally better if Andersen finds his way back to playing like he’s shown he can throughout his tenure in Toronto. During his four years as a Maple Leaf, he’s averaged a .916 save percentage, 2.77 goals against average, and just over three shutouts per campaign.
While those are solid numbers, which are clearly superior to last season, it still won’t be enough. To get into the conversation as an elite team all around, Andersen’s stats will have to align accordingly.
Andersen Needs to Elevate
2020’s Stanley Cup Final saw the Tampa Bay Lightning defeat the Dallas Stars. Through 2019-20, Tampa maintained a 2.64 goals against average while Dallas faired even better in that area at 2.38. Those are the types of numbers championship teams require.
Taking it a step further, this Toronto franchise needs to regain full confidence in Andersen controlling their crease. Then, the rest of the lineup can comfortably perform at their peak without the concern of what a missed opportunity or broken play could result in.
Andersen can’t just get back to his normal numbers for that to occur. He has to be even better than he’s ever been. This year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck, accumulated six shutouts on top of saving 92.2% of the shots he faced and only letting in 2.57 goals per game.
When looking at Andersen’s best stats to date, he earned a .923 save percentage and 2.29 goals against average throughout his rookie year of 2013-14 with the Anaheim Ducks. However, he only played 28 games that year. (Stats courtesy of: Hockey-Reference).
For the Toronto Maple Leafs to see their collective success take the next step, Andersen has to find a way back to his 24-year-old form and sustain that level of play all season long. He’s done a good job for this franchise, but they need to expect more of him. And it’s time he delivers, too.