The Leafs need to get Frederik Andersen out of the net right now

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:30 am by Jeff Veillette

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Late in the third period of last night’s game, Frederik Andersen made a routine pad save. The crowd gave him a sarcastic “Bronx Cheer.” A person behind me yells “I can’t believe they’re paying $5 million for this”, and another calls him the worst investment since Vesa Toskala.

I turn around, as I’ve been talking back and forth between the group throughout the game, and note that I’m not ready to write the guy off after six games, given his history. The one who made the latter statement agreed, but stressed that, since he’s paying good money for these seats, he’s going to vent some in-the-moment frustration in the meantime.

Hard to argue with that logic, really. If I didn’t get the tickets as a gift, I probably wouldn’t have been thrilled at the idea of paying lower bowl prices to watch the Leafs put some of their weaker shots of the year towards the net in hopes of getting a lucky bounce or two to stop the goal bleeding on the other end. It was undoubtedly Andersen’s roughest night on the job since coming here, and the whole ordeal got me to thinking: the Leafs should probably pull him away from the pipes for a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me saying that he needs to be traded, or waived, or sent on a plane to his native Denmark and reprogrammed as a midfielder for Toronto FC. While I was skeptical about investing assets in a mid-twenties goaltender when the trade was made, I’m confident that there’s a good goaltender hidden behind that man’s pads. But something is wrong.

There are three trains of thought as to why the team’s starter has, through five appearances, put up a 0.851 save percentage; a result that would be close to acceptable forty years ago, but is nothing short of catastrophic in 2016.

Not His Fault?

The first is that this isn’t his fault and that the blame should be placed on the defence for not bailing him out. To be honest, while some good arguments have been made, I’m not sold on this at all. It’s a common bias from fans who, outside of highlight reel circumstances, will only generally pick up on defensive breakdowns from their own team, creating an exaggerated belief that their own defenders are the only ones capable of routine mistakes. When watching “your” team play, you’ll be too distracted by the forwards to notice much of what the opponents are doing to defend, and when watching a neutral game, most every-day fans aren’t invested enough to worry about the Xs and Os of it all.

Every goal, save for long distance dumps that go in by accident, usually has a mistake maker. The goaltender’s job is, by design, to bail those mistakes out. If the defence were doing their job properly, the goaltender would face zero shots against per game.

Even with score effects at play, the Leafs are giving up the seventh-fewest shots per game in the National Hockey League at even strength. I might have my heroes and goats on the point, and the process can be made more efficient no doubt, but the net result so far is a team that’s supporting him enough.

The fancy data backs this up as well. I looked at every goalie who has played 120 minutes at even-strength (35 of them thus far) and found that…

  • Andersen is 34th in save percentage at evens. If you want to give his positioning the credit (rather than the defence) for missed shots, he’s 32nd in Fenwick-included save percentage, and if you want to add blocked shots to the equation, he’s 30th in Corsi-included save percentage.
  • Breaking it down into danger areas, Andersen still only ranks 19th at stopping low danger shots, dead last by over 5% at medium danger shots, and 28th at stopping high danger shots. He’s dead last in the league in goals saved above average; an average goaltender stops 5.63 more shots at 5-on-5. Toronto’s even strength goal differential is -1.

Now, there is the possibility that “shot quality” might be coming into play. Over the long run, quality tends to be statistical noise, but just for the heck of it, here’s a look at whether, from a statistical standpoint, Andersen is facing a rougher type of shot on net than his peers. Looking at the same 35 goalies…

  • Andersen’s shots against aren’t exactly coming from up close. Averaging a distance of slightly over 35 feet, only 12 of these goalies are seeing their shots come from further away. Ben Bishop, who the Leafs faced last night, sees his shots come in from ten feet closer on average.
  • Of shots attempted by Andersen’s opponents, only 47% of them actually hit the net. Score effects likely come into play here, as the Leafs have had a lot of leads with him in goal, meaning that teams are more likely to throw whatever they can on net. Only two goaltenders, Carey Price and Jake Allen have had to be in a save-making position for fewer of their attempted shots aginst.
  • Similarly, 29% of attempts against Andersen were blocked before they got to the net; this could be used to say that the Leafs might be screening him too hard, but the point is that only eight goalies had a lower ratio of shots even get to their general area.
  • As for where the shots are taken, 43% of what Andersen has had to stop has come from a low-danger area, 12th highest in the league. 39% of them have come from medium-danger areas (28th), and 19% have come in a high danger spot (8th-fewest). For those concerned about rebounds, 8% of his shots against have come off them (20th), and, a bit more concerning, 15% of shots against have come off the rush (5th highest, though it seems like this is more from teams shooting at him as they cross into the blue line rather than them cutting to the slot). 

As much as I’d like to say the situation isn’t on him, the data is pretty damning. The defence may break down at times, but so does every group of six in the league, and relatively speaking, they’ve been affording him an easier workload than the rest of the league has.

Don’t Turn Him Into Reimer

There’s been a lot of talk about the possibility of a stylistic change in Andersen’s game. Okay, there’s not much talk about that; even the most casual of game-watcher can see that he’s coming much further out of the crease than he did in Anaheim and that he’s defaulting to the butterfly. It’s more about the reasoning behind it.

My suspicion, as it’s been all year, is that Andersen is still hurting from his shoulder injury from at the Olympic qualifiers before the World Cup. From my understanding, the injury was a full-on separation, though I could be misled there. Andersen came back into the lineup a little quicker than everyone expected, and he hasn’t been particularly great since.

It’s not just the fact the results, but the process as well. As pointed out in this clever post on /r/Leafs, true over-aggression would likely lead to a lag behind in play tracking as well; what we’re seeing here is more likely a stance that is being used to minimize pain. Andersen appears to come out and drop down to give him an equal footprint while minimizing the strain on his shoulders if he needs to lift his glove or blocker. This is a likely reason that he’s getting caught looking on so many high shots. Sure, the second Stamkos goal from last night isn’t one very many goalies will stop, but let’s not pretend that every Blackhawks shooter in the shootout didn’t know to pick his newfound weak spot on Saturday.

If this is the case, they risk running the road they had with James Reimer. Granted, Reimer’s injuries were likely concussion-based, but there was a clear drop-off in performance from him during his time in Toronto shortly in stretches after coming back quickly from an ailment compared to when he’d get some time to rest up and get back to 100%.

With Andersen, maybe he isn’t admitting that he isn’t quite painless yet. From an outsider’s perspective, it definitely gives that visual impression. I sympathize with him; he wants to make an impression with his new team, and he doesn’t want to give the impression that he’s weak, but simultaneously dragging the team down while burning your first impression to the fanbase isn’t going to do you many favours. Nobody wants to risk further physically breaking a player and shattering his reputation five games into a five-year contract; perhaps it’s not worth the risk.

Don’t Turn Him Into Bernier

Some believe that this is a Mike Babcock and Steve Briere initiative, as Babcock supposedly likes more “aggressive” goaltenders. Babcock has flatly denied this as of last night:

As much as I can be a skeptic of some of the Head Coach’s decisions from afar, I do believe this to be a genuine thought. Our early looks at Jhonas Enroth don’t show the same degree of pushing out of the crease; he plays about as deep as Andersen used to. If both are by design, it almost seems backward. The main benefit of playing “aggressive” is to create extra size and cut off shooting angles, which Andersen needs less at 6’4 than Enroth needs at 5’11. 

If this is a case of Andersen coming out and going down because he feels pressured and unconfident of his ability to stop the puck in close, and it’s impacting his play, then the mental side of the game is impacting him. If that’s the case, something has to give.

If Babcock is lying to the media and he and Briere really are tinkering with his game, perhaps that needs to stick to the practice rink for now. Clearly, he’s not comfortable and up-to-speed with it right now, and it’s impacting his game on the ice. With that in mind, you can train him in the new methods during practice and have Freddy “be Freddy” during the games to get his confidence back up, or you can keep him out of the lineup until he’s prepared.

We saw Jonathan Bernier’s swift downward spiral in Toronto. He followed up perhaps the statistically best “starter-length” season in team history in 2013/14, done in spite of an awful team in front of him, with a string of bad games in the following year that took him a whole calendar year to recover from. A combination of James Reimer taking the bulk of the starts for a stretch and a confidence-boosting conditioning stint with the Marlies is what got Bernier back in gear, though at that point, any goodwill he had left wih the fanbase and organization was lost. 

Give Him A Break

That’s the thing. You don’t want Andersen to have the fall from grace that either of those two goaltenders had; especially because he hasn’t had any local grace to start off with. At least in both the prior cases, both netminders got to start off with a half to full season of fantastic hockey to buy them time to have some growing pains.

Andersen doesn’t have that. The Leafs do; most of the fanbase is unconvinced that this offensively dominant and defensively good enough roster is good enough to do damage, and have allowed for this season to be a write-off with potential for a pleasant surprise. But he’s the big money goalie that cost the team assets to get and has been committed to for five years. He’s young enough at 26, but a veteran in this group of stupendously good young players.

So, knowing that he’s not performing well despite decent enough support, and with speculation that either over-coaching or injury is the reason for a sudden change of style, there is some reason for concern. Is he playing through pain when he shouldn’t be? Is he publicly showing that he isn’t yet prepared for his new system? Is it all just blind luck?

We don’t know. What we do know is that he’s on his way to becoming the next in a long list of blamed starting goaltenders in Toronto. This city is capable of backing its netminder, but considering the fact that just four goalies (Potvin, Joseph, Belfour, Bernier) in the past 30 years have played 50 games in a season and walked away with an above-average save percentage, fans are skeptical to buy in and quick to judge.

Toronto has six games in the next ten days. It’s a heavy workload. Don’t continue to toss him under the pressure cooker for this one; let Enroth carry as much of the load as he’s able to while Andersen rests up, learns up, and preps up. Give him the training camp that he lost to his injury and re-release him to the wolves as a new man in a week and a half.

It’s one thing to have a rough five games. That’s excusable, and I believe that Andersen can get through it. But if this situation isn’t approached delicately, it could lead to a rough five years, and nobody wants that.