Aaron Dell’s number is 30.
Not only was that the number on his jersey last season for the Sharks, and his age last season, but it’s most importantly the number of games he started for them in a season that Sharks fans would like to forget.
Dell had three previous years as the backup in San Jose coming into last season, and like most backup goaltenders his results varied wildly over that time, and essentially his correlate to the quality of the team in San Jose, which is to say he was steadily declining over his first three years. Last year was an improvement from his 2018-19 numbers, which is hopefully his rock bottom and we won’t see a .886 save percentage, 30% quality start, -14.56 GSAA year from him again, although the one thing San Jose has had is defensemen and if Dell has struggled in front of that group, he could be challenged by the more offensive driven lineup in front of him in Toronto.
Last season was an a different story, as the Sharks had to lean heavily on Dell to make up for the continued decline of Martin Jones. A career high in games and starts brought Dell’s save percentage back up to a respectable .907 and his GSAA rebounded to a less bad -2.84. Still only 50% of Dell’s starts were considered quality starts, which wasn’t far off Freddie Andersen’s 52%, ahead of Jack Campbell’s 35% on the Kings, but behind Campbell’s 67% in his limited time in Toronto. Dell might not force a goalie controversy as Andersen is still the established starter, and the Leafs are certainly curious about what they have in Campbell as well, but in this, the most bizarre of seasons, Dell might have an important role to play.
Given the fact that teams are going to be likely to be playing baseball type series in different cities, with the possibility of increased back to back games, given the late start to the year, goaltending depth is bound to be a factor and with expanded rosters, carrying a third goaltender seems like a no brainer.
The Leafs have one of the better third string options in the league with Dell, but they have an opportunity to use him in a unique way. Toronto will have their starter, either Andersen or Campbell, but rather than sit the other one on the bench, possibly to mop up late in the game when things don’t go their way, there is the option to regularly dress Dell in those back to back situations as the bench guy. It’s a small thing, but reduces any chance of a tired goaltender during the second game, and gives Toronto a chance to make decisions on pulling their goaltender earlier in the game, rather than leaving their starter in to take a pasting. Additionally in the case of minor injuries, the Leafs might be comfortable removing their goaltender from play sooner, and giving them more rest throughout the season as well.
There’s also the issues that come with condensed schedules creating a greater risk of injury, and the whole nature of the pandemic making it essential to have a third option you can trust this year. It appears after a couple of seasons without any real NHL calibre backup, Dubas has gone all in on the position to make sure the Leafs have an NHL goaltender in net at all times.
The decision to bring in Dell was a smart one, and with Campbell trying to make a case for taking over the net when Andersen hits free agency, this is an opportunity for Dell to make his case for 2021-22 backup as well, or at least build his resume for next season.
Dell’s 30 starts, or even his consistent 20+ starts gives the Leafs a lot of security both from injury and the question marks around whether Andersen is in the decline and if Campbell can hold the net. It will be interesting to see how Aaron is deployed in 2021.