Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

What We Learned: Freddy Andersen needs a quality backup

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s year-(so far)-in-review series in which we talk about something we learned about each player on the team this year. Today, we have Freddy Andersen’s struggles and the need to find him a competent backup.

For the first time since arriving in Toronto, Freddy Andersen showed cracks.

In his first three seasons with the club, he was insanely consistent. A .918 in 66 games in 2016-17, a .918 save percentage in 66 games again in 2017-18, and a .917 save percentage in 60 games in 2018-19. But in 2019-20, though, Andersen had some struggles, posting a .909 save percentage in 52 games, the lowest figure in his seven seasons in the league.

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It’s safe to say that there’s been some wear and tear on Andersen as he’s played the most games of any goaltender in the league (tied with Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg) since 2016-17. The biggest reason why Andersen has played that many games over that stretch of time is because he’s had to.

The Leafs’ backup goaltending situation over the past few years has been a strange one.

Ahead of the 2016-17 season, Toronto acquired Andersen in a trade to be their starting goaltender and they signed Jhonas Enroth as a free agent to back him up. Enroth was a disaster so the Leafs snagged Curtis McElhinney off of waivers to replace him.

McElhinney, a career backup with unimpressive numbers, was actually quite good for Toronto, but it always seemed as though he was just temporarily keeping the seat warm for somebody else. That somebody else, it seemed, was Garret Sparks, who posted a ridiculous season for the Toronto Marlies in 2017-18 and led the team to a Calder Cup championship.

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The Leafs came into 2018-19 with a massive goalie dilemma. They had Andersen entrenched as the starter, McElhinney, also known as McBackup because he had actually thrived in the role, and Sparks, who had the aforementioned incredible AHL showing. Ultimately, it was McElhinney who got cut and Sparks who made the team, which made sense at the time because you’d obviously want to keep the younger player.

It didn’t work out. Sparks was a disaster for the Leafs that season, posting a .902 save percentage in 20 games. Things got so bad with Sparks that he got purged from the Leafs roster ahead of the playoffs. His locker was removed from the dressing room and he was banished to watch from a distance. McElhinney, meanwhile, continued to thrive in a backup role with the Carolina Hurricanes, who had grabbed him off of waivers.

Since McElhinney, the Leafs haven’t had an adequate backup for Andersen. Michael Hutchinson was an even bigger disaster between the pipes in 2019-20 for the Leafs than Sparks had been the year prior. Hutchinson played in 15 games and posted a .886 save percentage. It seemed that if Andersen wasn’t playing, it would be an auto loss. And, since Andersen was playing so much and being stretched thin, he himself was turning into a liability.

Ahead of the trade deadline, Kyle Dubas addressed the backup situation by acquiring Jack Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings. The former No. 11 overall pick from the 2010 draft finally hit his stride nearly a decade later with the Kings, posting a .928 save percentage in 2018-19. This year, between L.A. and Toronto. Campbell put up a .904 save percentage. His .915 save percentage with the Leafs was a massive upgrade over what Hutchinson (and, hell, even Andersen) had given them otherwise this year.

Campbell has an extension worth $1.65 million annually kicking in next season. He’s obviously an upgrade over Sparks and Hutchinson, making him the best the Leafs have had in the role since McBackup was around, but Andersen’s struggles this year have made it clear that Toronto needs more than just an adequate backup.

It’s become very clear that the Leafs can’t be relying on Andersen to play 66 games year in, year out like they did when they first acquired him. The league more and more is moving to a 1A/1B goalie format with the old days of the ace goalie starting upwards of 75 games. If you take a look around the league, the goalies with the best save percentages are those who are a part of tandems, rather than the ones who get worked into the ground.

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There’s been talking about moving on from Andersen and looking for an upgrade. But, at his reasonable cap hit, doing so won’t be easy. It’s probably best to allow Andersen to have a chance to rebound when he doesn’t have to shoulder such a massive load. Let’s hope Campbell can do that for him.