The most important member of the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t score a single goal this year and will likely be out of the lineup for 15 to 20 games.
On most nights, you won’t even know he’s there.
No, we’re not talking about William Nylander, who’s prolonged contract negotiations have resulted in him missing the start of the regular season. The Leafs can afford to lose him — for now, at least.
Frederik Andersen is another story altogether.
On a team that includes John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and arguably the deepest collection of forwards in the NHL, you might think that Andersen could be the second coming of Grant Fuhr, allowing six or seven goals a night, and the Leafs would still find ways to win and advance to the playoffs.
But if they hope to win a Stanley Cup, then Andersen needs to play at a Vezina Trophy level. And after what happened in the first-round loss to the Boston Bruins last year, he knows it.
“It’s nice to have that confidence of having a good offence,” Andersen said prior to Wednesday night’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens. “But that doesn’t mean you can relax anymore. You have to pay attention to your own details. I have to focus on my job there.”
It’s not necessarily an easy job that Andersen has. While the Leafs provided quite the cushion for Andersen last season, having scored the third-most goals in the league, they also were among the worst at defending.
Andersen faced more shots than any other goalie in the league in 2017-18. He also stopped more shots than any other goalie, which is why he finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting. It was a heavy workload. But don’t expect it to get any easier this season.
While the acquisition of Tavares has provided the Leafs with the kind of centre depth that few other teams in the NHL have, Toronto’s back end is devoid of a true No. 1 defenceman. The closest they have is Morgan Rielly.
After that, which of Ron Hainsey, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev or Travis Dermott would find themselves on another team’s top pairing — let alone second pair?
In other words, either the Leafs are going to have to score their way out of trouble or Andersen is going to have to stand on his head like he did a year ago. Or they could learn how to play defence.
“It’s not about how many shots, really,” said Andersen. “It’s about structure. That’s all that I’m worrying about, other than my own game obviously. I’m going to try to the stop the puck as it comes. I can’t worry about if it’s 30 shots or 40. It doesn’t matter. It’s one shot at a time.”
It’s easy to forget just how different last year might have been had Andersen not had a .918 save percentage and a 2.81 goals-against average. Had he posted numbers similar to Montreal’s Carey Price or even Edmonton’s Cam Talbot, the Leafs might have missed the playoffs.
It’s like this everywhere, of course.
The Winnipeg Jets were finally able to turn things around last season, because they finally had a goalie in Connor Hellebuyck who had a .924 save percentage.
The reason Vegas shocked the hockey world and won the Pacific Division wasn’t because William Karlsson scored 43 goals. No, it was because Marc-Andre Fleury had a .927 save percentage.
Even Tampa Bay, a team that led the league in scoring thanks to Nikita Kucherov’s 100 points, had to rely on its goaltender more than you think after finishing in the bottom 10 in shots allowed.
So Andersen will have to do his part, even more so now that backup Curtis McElhinney and his .934 save percentage is gone in favour of minor-league call-up Garret Sparks.
“It’s really important,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Andersen’s role. “But it’s really important that we go out and do our job so that he can do his job. If you turn over the puck or you’re disorganized coming back or you don’t commit to defence or you don’t work, your goalie is not going to look good. You don’t give him a chance to be successful.
“The bottom line is we all know that and we all know what we have to commit to. In the end, if you’re going to win, you have to be really good defensively. And we all understand that.”
You can say all you want about Washington winning the Cup without a Norris Trophy-calibre defence or Pittsburgh winning in back-to-back years with Kris Letang and not much else, but the one constant with both teams is they had a goalie who stood on his head when it mattered the most.
That’s the challenge with Andersen this year. He can’t just be good. He can’t allow six goals and then hope to get the win by keeping the seventh out of the net, as he did in Game 7 against the Bruins. Even on this team with these forwards, he has to be the difference-maker.
Anything less and the Leafs might make the playoffs, but they aren’t going to go far.
“It’s going to be hard work,” said Andersen. “We have a good team, but it stays the same. You have to approach it the way I have been. Trying to give them a chance at all times.”
HOW CANADIAN TEAM’S GOALIES STACK UP
While all eyes will be on Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, here is how the rest of Canada’s goaltending picture looks:
Mike Smith, Calgary
While Smith’s numbers were almost identical from the year before, he had his two worst months at the end of the season. He’ll have to finish strong if Calgary hopes to avoid fading from the playoff picture again.
Cam Talbot, Edmonton
The Oilers goalie went from a .919 save percentage in 2016-17 to a .908 save percentage in 2017-18. The big stat, however, was that he had just one shutout — down from seven the year before.
Carey Price, Montreal
With a 3.11 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage, it’s hard to believe this the same Price who won a Hart and Vezina Trophy in 2014-15. Obviously, he will have to return to form if Montreal hopes to challenge for a playoff spot.
Craig Anderson, Ottawa
There’s a pattern of one good season followed by a bad one during Anderson’s career, so maybe after posting a .898 save percentage last season, he’s due for a rebound.
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver
After playing a career-high 60 games last season, Markstrom enters the year as the undisputed No. 1 goalie. If he can improve his .912 save percentage, Vancouver’s rebuild would go a lot faster.
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg
At this time last year, Hellebuyck was Winnipeg’s starter. By the end of the season, he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. The Jets will be expecting the same if they hope to make a run to the final.