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Leafs' fortunes next season need a boost from a return to form by Andersen

The Maple Leafs will go into their next season as Frederik Andersen as their No. 1 goalie once again.
The Maple Leafs will go into their next season as Frederik Andersen as their No. 1 goalie once again.

With the Maple Leafs’ off-season moves complete, or so we can assume, the Toronto Sun, in a four-part series this week, breaks down the roster and what can be expected from the team once the 2020-21 season starts. Today, we start with goaltending.

Amid the Maple Leafs’ changes in the off-season — the remodelling of the bottom-six group of forwards, the signing of top-four defenceman TJ Brodie, the reshaping of Sheldon Keefe’s coaching staff — there have been a couple of constants.

One, the core of the team has remained intact. And two, there have been no changes in the crease.

Frederik Andersen, heading into the last season of a five-year contract signed in June 2016, will return to his rightful spot as the Leafs’ No. 1 goaltender. Jack Campbell, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings last February, will continue to give the Leafs their best fall-back option since Curtis McElhinney departed two years ago, and Aaron Dell, signed two weeks ago, will provide solid insurance.

For the Leafs to take a large step past the first round of the post-season, over which they have tripped and fallen in each of the past four years, Andersen will have to return to the form that dropped him into the Vezina Trophy conversation in the two seasons preceding 2019-20.

Andersen’s .909 save percentage in 52 games was his lowest in his seven National Hockey League seasons; he posted a .936 mark in the five-game qualifying round loss against the Columbus Blue Jackets in August, which lost lustre because of some soft Jackets goals.

Andersen’s struggles were underscored when general manager Kyle Dubas, during his media availability following the team’s elimination, was able to mention the games in which Andersen shone during the regular season. It shouldn’t have been that easy for the GM to distinguish Andersen’s best starts.

The Leafs, of course, would be of better use to their goaltenders with an overall improved commitment to defensive play, not only from the defence corps, but from the five players on the ice at any time.

Progress should continue to be made in that area once Keefe gets his first true training camp out of the way, and if life in front of Andersen is a little easier, do some of those soft goals fall by the wayside?

Other factors could come into play that might result in the Leafs getting better goaltending.

“Andersen needs to be pushed a little more,” Sportsnet analyst and former NHL goalie Greg Millen said. “There is an opportunity for that now with Campbell, who I quite like. I think he is going to need to play a lot more than he has.

“That would be good for the whole team in general, to create some healthy competition. It would only help Andersen if he does get looking over his shoulder a little bit more.

“You can’t knock Campbell’s play last year and his attitude. What I like about Campbell is he has faced some adversity, he was a high pick (11th overall by Dallas in 2010), he got booted around a lot and sometimes that is a great learning situation for a goalie moving forward in clutch situations down the road. He deserves more opportunity to start pushing the situation.”

We’re curious to see whether Andersen will derive any motivation from the fact he will be playing for a new contract. A sharp regular season, followed by playoff success, could make him one of the highest-paid goalies in free agency in 2021, even with the financial restraints that are still likely going to be part of the NHL landscape because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the other goalies who are headed for unrestricted free agency next off-season include Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Jordan Binnington.

“No one will ever question whether Andersen is a good-enough goalie to get a team into the playoffs,” said Nick Kypreos, who launched his YouTube podcast, Real Kyper at Noon, on linemovement.com this past summer. “It’s tough for any goalie to win if he does not believe in his blue line. That’s an argument for Andersen the last few years — how good, really, was his blue line in front of him?

“Even if Andersen loses next season in the first round, I don’t think he will have a problem getting six (years) times six (million US per season) like Jacob Markstrom did (in free agency with the Calgary Flames).”

We wonder if the trade chatter involving Andersen in the past few months will create a chip on the 31-year-old’s shoulder. Dubas went out of his way to talk to Andersen about the speculation and told media early in October that he expected Andersen to be the starting Leafs goalie once the season starts.

We don’t envy Dubas regarding Andersen’s status. The Leafs would be loathe to lose Andersen for nothing in free agency, but trading him, if it’s decided he will not (or can’t) be re-signed, wouldn’t be prudent. Could Campbell and Dell could form a tandem to take the Leafs deep on a playoff run? That’s a big maybe.

The Leafs have approximately $66.6-million US on the books for the 2021-22 season. That includes seven forwards, five defencemen and Campbell. Dubas is again going to have to stretch his dollars, and he will have to set aside a substantial chunk to retain forward Zach Hyman.

Financials aside, we figure Andersen probably got wind of what Joe Thornton said last weekend after the Leafs signed the NHL veteran.

“I love their goalie,” Thornton said. “I like Freddy a lot. That was a big part of my decision.”

If Andersen can prove his new teammate correct, the Leafs’ first-round frustrations should come to an end.

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