When it comes to goaltending and predicting the future, two words spring to mind: “Who knows?” The prevailing thought for years about goaltending has been that it is (a) voodoo and (b) very hard to predict year over year. We’ve seen it happen so many times, where a journeyman goaltender goes on a tear or a star goaltender suddenly can’t stop a beach ball.
For a while there it looked like Frederik Andersen was the anomaly after putting up three consecutive seasons of almost identical save percentages. However, a very up and down 2019-20 season has injected more uncertainty than ever about what he will bring to the table once playoff games begin in August after a four-month pause of the season.
By The Numbers
The best you could possibly ask from your goaltender is that he makes the saves he should make. Anything above and beyond that is simply gravy. And since landing in Toronto, Andersen has delivered more gravy than a Smoke’s Poutinerie on 4/20.
For the better part of four season as the Maple Leafs’ starting goaltender, Andersen has been one of the top goaltenders in the league, as shown by how he fares in two main advanced goaltending statistics: even strength save percentage and goals saved above expectation.
Andersen has the 5th-best rate of goals saved above expectation (GSAx) per 60 mins played of any goaltender to play more than 8,000 minutes at even strength since 2016-17. But what does GSAx measure and why is it so useful for evaluating goaltenders? Well, whereas regular save percentage treats every shot as equally dangerous, GSAx accounts for shot quality by looking at the characteristics of a given shot (i.e. distance from net, angle of shot, type of shot) and using these details to calculate the probability of that shot resulting in a goal. These probabilities are added together to come up with a total of “expected goals against” for a given period, and then compared against how many actual goals the goaltender allowed in that period. Essentially it determines if the goaltender saved more or less than was expected of him, based on the quality of shots faced.
For Andersen to finish fifth on this listing with the defensive roster and structure put in front of him all these years is a borderline superhuman feat and speaks to his standing as a top-level netminder in the NHL in recent years.
What We’ve Seen So Far
This season has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Andersen, much more so than in previous years. His save percentage (0.909) is down compared to previous years and while the difference is less than 1% (meaning roughly 1 more goal allowed per 100 shots), that tends to add up when you’re facing 2000 shots a season. It’s unclear whether Andersen would have picked it up heading into the latter part of March and April to bring his save percentage back up to his normal standards, but he did put up a 0.938 save percentage in what ended up being his final five appearances of the 2019-20 season.
Below is a view of Andersen’s rolling 10-game average save percentage for the three years prior to this season (in blue) vs. this season (in orange), to give you an idea of how up and down this year was.
The eye test also confirms that he was a bit more shaky this season than in prior years, allowing an uncharacteristic amount of saveable shots, finding himself out of position, mishandling the puck and getting pulled on multiple occasions.
With the stakes this high, he’s going to have to cut down on gaffes like the below two examples this season:
How will he do against Columbus?
As is the common theme in this article, it’s hard to know with goaltenders. What we do know is that Andersen is infamous for starting slowly after a long layoff:
The trend here seems to be that Andersen has an abysmal first 10 games, followed by a very solid next 20 games and then a pretty consistently-average rest of his season. If Andersen can buck this trend and quickly establish himself as a dominant force in this series, that will make the Leafs’ job of disposing of the Blue Jackets that much easier.
The good news is that Columbus has one of the most anemic offences in the league, finishing bottom five in all of the following offensive categories:
Simply put, Columbus is a team that struggles to score and relies upon their defence and goaltending to eke out wins. This is not the same team who had the 7th-best offence in the league in 2018-19 and upset Tampa Bay in the first round. Even average goaltending from Andersen should get the job done against Columbus, assuming our offence can break through against their defence.
Save the shots you are meant to save, and our offence will do the rest.
Andersen plays perhaps the most critical position for the Leafs and the team needs him to be on top of his game from the very first puck drop if they have any hopes of going on a deep playoff run.
It is comforting that Andersen has recently said that this training camp feels different than others because of the importance of the games to immediately come, so hopefully he can avoid a slow start and return to being Steady Freddy, helping the Leafs to a play-in round win.
(Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com and NHL.com
Special thanks to Nick DeSouza for the gifs.)