All contract terms are taken from CapFriendly, and all statistics from Natural Stat Trick; All information is accurate as of March 16th.
For the past half-decade, 31-year-old Frederik Andersen, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season, has taken on the often-thankless task of playing goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and provided them with stable goaltending not seen in the city since Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour manned the crease.
In the previous three seasons, Andersen ranks second in games played (178), is tied for 15thin all-strengths save percentage (.915) and amassed the 11th most goals saved above average (GSAA) – a statistic that determines how many more goals a given goalie has prevented, compared to a hypothetical league average netminder facing the same quality of chances. The ranks are all among goalies with at least 4500 minutes played, roughly equivalent to a full 82-game season’s worth of time-on-ice.
While Andersen’s play has largely resembled that of an above-average goaltender in spite of a heavy workload, his spot as Toronto’s starter is all but assured for next season. This ambiguity stems from the historical mixed-bag of long-term contracts given to goalies over 30, with Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky being notorious examples of those whose play has noticeably declined after being awarded gargantuan deals based on name-recognition, rather than their actual ability at the time, and that apprehensiveness has only grown with Andersen’s poor start this year.
As of mid-March, Andersen is sporting a well below-average .900 save percentage and a mark of -4.00 GSAA, representing an inadequate return on the $5-million (tied for 13thamong goalies) he’s owed in 2020-21, and although the team still struggles to prevent scoring chances against (ranking 20th) and expected goals against per 60 minutes (19th) at 5-on-5 play, Toronto’s defensive play has looked better than the past and it is unnerving that Andersen’s numbers have fallen drastically in spite of their improved structure.
It is difficult to parse out whether his challenging start has simply been due to an unfortunate run of form, a by-product of a heavy workload taking its toll, or a symptom of age-related decline, although he has himself admitted that his recovery from injury this season has been turbulent, further casting his future productivity into doubt.
Why Does This Matter?
Professional sports are a callous industry, one in which players are judged through the lens of “what have you done for me lately?”, fairly or not. As such, Andersen’s recent performances have not inspired confidence at a time in which the Leafs should be poised to capitalize on a weaker division and avoid the league’s top contenders until the third round of the playoffs, representing Toronto’s best opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in several decades.
Most notably, Andersen’s tendency to fall flat in elimination games during the playoffs has been particularly back-breaking for the rest of the Leafs, who for all of their legitimate flaws, may desire the much-needed psychological reset that would come with Andersen’s departure.
With the salary cap remaining flat for the foreseeable future due to pandemic-related losses in NHL revenue, finding a bargain-bin free agent would allow the Leafs to re-allocate Andersen’s sizeable $5-million cap hit elsewhere, perhaps for an additional top-six forward to complement their already potent attack (Filip Forsberg or Taylor Hall anyone?), or a top-four defensemen (Dougie Hamilton?) to solidify their backend.
Regardless of which avenue they eventually choose, what is evident is that the Leafs have several feasible options heading into next year, with a mixture of experienced veterans and young, but unproven, alternatives available for relatively affordable prices.
Below, I will evaluate seven potential acquisitions, and determine how likely each one is to come to fruition.
1.) Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings (Age 26) / 2020-21 Cap Hit: $858, 333/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 15 GP/ .921 SV%/ 2.63 GAA/ 6.81 GSAA
Our first target comes from a familiar trade partner, and is someone who has a single year left on his contract after this season. Petersen has split the net with Jonathan Quick early on and has greatly outperformed the veteran when called upon.
Petersen’s posting of the 6th most goals saved above expected in the league this year has been an important factor in the Kings challenging for a playoff spot, only a year after selecting 2ndoverall in the entry draft. At 26, Petersen is in no real danger of declining anytime soon and could form half of a formidable partnership with ex-King Jack Campbell for less than a combined 3-million-dollar cap hit, significantly less than the probable cost of extending Andersen.
However, his contract status suggests that Los Angeles would not be quick to part with him, especially as he is currently providing above-average goaltending for less than a million dollars. Further, while Quick has 2 more years left on his contract after this one, his shaky play and spotty health could give Petersen an opportunity to grab the starter’s role, and the Kings may view him as the 35-year-old Quick’s eventual successor.
Despite Petersen’s surprisingly strong display this year, he has a limited sample-size of major league starts. His 34 games of NHL experience across several seasons means he is untested and may falter when entrusted with a greater workload. This assertion is borne out in his performance at the AHL level, as his numbers take a hit when starting a greater proportion of games. This represents a risky gamble if any of Jack Campbell’s pre-existing injuries flare up in the future, and Petersen must take the reins of a team who often relies heavily on their goalies.
Although Petersen does possess much of a track record in the NHL, he has played well in spot duty and his cheap cap-hit makes him a particularly attractive trade candidate. Additionally, the Kings allow a greater quality of scoring chances than the Leafs at 5-on-5, suggesting that he should be able to maintain his solid play in front of a more disciplined group. He’s worth a look.
2.) Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers (Age 26)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $850,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 12 GP/ .920 SV%/ 2.40 GAA/ 4.80 GSAA
When Sergei Bobrovsky faltered to start the season, Driedger was thrust into the crease and held the fort admirably for the surprising Panthers, who are currently tied for 1stin the Central division alongside the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Although Bobrovsky has recently regained the confidence of head coach Joel Quenneville, Driedger still ranks 9thand 10th this season in save percentage and goals saved above average at 5-on-5 respectively, proving to be a reliable option when necessary. In fact, Driedger has often found himself outplaying his goalie partner the past few seasons, extremely worrying for Florida when you consider that Bobrovsky is slated to make more than ten times Dredger’s salary this season, and most likely pricing them out of what would otherwise be an inexpensive back-up.
Driedger is a typical journeyman, with extensive minor league experience bouncing around in the AHL and ECHL, ranking among the top of the leaderboards in both leagues since the 2017-18 season. Similar to Petersen, Driedger does not have much in the way of prolonged NHL experience and it remains to be seen how he would respond to increased responsibility, somewhat diminishing his appeal despite the minimal salary he would command.
Since Bobrovsky’s boat-anchor contract has essentially cemented his place in Florida for the foreseeable future, and with 2019 first-round-pick Spencer Knight dominating the NCAA circuit, the Panthers’ logjam at goalie may make Driedger expendable, with rumours already flaring up ahead of the trade deadline next month due to his palatable cap hit and sturdy play as a stop-gap.
If he stays put, Toronto’s ability to offer significantly more playing time next season may entice him to join in free agency, costing significantly less than the Campbell-Andersen pairing, even after accounting for a slight raise in salary.
3.) Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars (Age 22)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $925,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 13 GP/ .917 SV%/ 2.10 GAA/ 2.91 GSAA
The Stars are currently carrying three capable goalies on their roster, and the fact that Oettinger has forced his way into more playing time has raised questions over the organization’s goaltending hierarchy.
Although he is relatively inexperienced for Toronto’s liking, and somewhat insulated within Dallas’ staunch defensive structure (they lead the league this year in expected goals and scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5), Oettinger has shown glimpses of his potential with Anton Khudobin struggling so far to replicate his form from last year’s post-season, posting a .907 save percentage that is a far cry from the .930 and .917 he put up in the regular season and playoffs, respectively.
Khudobin’s magical run to the Cup Final last season was rewarded with a three-year contract, an interesting development even with presumed starter Ben Bishop currently recovering from significant knee surgery. Bishop and Khudobin are both under contract until 2023, with the former’s deal carrying both a modified no-trade and no-move clause, leaving him to dictate his future in Dallas.
However, with Oettinger still on his entry-level deal and being under team control for at least a few more seasons, Dallas probably feels comfortable with letting him marinate in the AHL once Bishop returns, grooming him to assume the starter’s role after their main 34-year-old options see out the remainder of their contracts.
All things considered, Oettinger may be the least likely of arrivals on this list due to his draft pedigree and contract status but acquiring a touted goalie prospect would be a boon for the Leafs, with those currently in their pipeline looking more like wildcards than guaranteed starters at the NHL level.
4.) Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes (Age 31)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,250,000/ 2020-21 Stats: 9 GP/ .912 SV%/ 3.36 GAA/ 1.51 GSAA
5.) Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes (Age 30)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,500,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 18 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.41 GAA/ 3.43 GSAA
Despite his experience as a dependable starting goalie, one thing that may give the Leafs pause is Raanta’s checkered health over the past few seasons. At 31, Raanta is moving beyond his physical peak and his 56 combined games over the past three seasons does not resemble a goalie who is capable of shouldering a workload of 40 games a season, and of assuming the starting role in the event that Campbell is not fully fit.
Not to completely disregard Raanta’s portfolio, his play when healthy has been worthy of his 4.25-million-dollar salary, ranking 17thin 5-on-5 save percentage and 21stin 5-on-5 GSAA since 2018, all the while facing an inordinately high number of quality chances behind an Arizona squad that has often struggled to adequately shield their goaltenders.
Raanta’s teammate Darcy Kemper is also an attractive commodity, but Arizona views him as a less uncertain gamble, being slightly younger and carrying another year on his deal, even with his own injury struggles.
Additionally, among goalies with at least 1500 minutes played, Kuemper ranks 2nd in all-strengths save percentage (.924) and 3rd in GSAA since 2018, often singlehandedly keeping the Coyotes competitive. With the extra year on his deal, Kuemper would have to be acquired in a trade, and his extraordinary play may make him unaffordable, just to give the Leafs another goalie at a similar cap-hit to Andersen.
However, one factor that may urge the Coyotes to part with Kuemper instead is that he is due to make $2-million more in real dollars (salary owed v.s. cap hit) next season ($5.5 million vs. $3.5 million) and with Arizona notoriously penny-pinching mess of an ownership group running the show during a financially crippling pandemic, Kuemper’s raise may be too much for them to stomach, leaving them vulnerable to Toronto’s deep pockets.
The boring answer is that Arizona promotes the much cheaper Adin Hill in Raanta’s place and cut their losses. If the Leafs limit the term they offer to 2 years, Raanta is a decent bet to work well in a tandem in the interim, but the concerns surrounding his physical condition may be too prominent to ignore.
6.) Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings (Age 32)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $3,000,000 – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 16 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.90 GAA/ 3.64 GSAA
Ah, Jonathan Bernier, noted appreciator of social justice icons. While most Leafs fans may most strongly associate Bernier with the tumultuous period occurring between the team’s playoff appearances in 2013 and 2017, he has impressed this season as the main goalie on a rebuilding Detroit roster.
Despite facing the most shots against per 60 minutes (34.35), the 2ndhighest rate of expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.52), and 11thmost high-danger shots per 60 minutes (8.25) in the league at 5-on-5 among goalies with at least 500 minutes played, Bernier has managed to accumulate the 8thmost GSAA, showing that a heavy workload won’t deter him from keeping his team competitive. If those totals alone don’t impress you, consider that Thomas Greiss and Jimmy Howard, Detroit’s other most common net minders in the past few seasons, have been atrocious comparably.
If nothing else, Bernier can take solace in the fact that he has somehow stopped 91.4% of shots in all situations this year, behind an awful Detroit team. Seriously, he should get a Vezina nomination simply for winning a game in 2021. His numbers should improve behind a more structured and cohesive team, is familiar with how intensely the team is scrutinized within this market, and could most likely be had for around $3-million.
What’s that? Every Leafs fan is breathlessly mouthing “no!” at their screen right now? Fine. Let’s end of this entry with a glitch from the Yahoo Fantasy Hockey app in which Bernier was hilariously credited with the most saves in a regular season game in NHL history, at the bottom of the screen.
With how few people are willingly watching Red Wings games these days, who’s to say it didn’t actually happen.
7.) Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 4 GP/ .955 SV%/ 0.99 GAA/ 3.14 GSAA
Carolina’s goaltending situation is intriguing in that potentially all three of Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, and Petr Mrazek may not be on the Hurricanes’ books come next season. The contracts of their goalie triumvirate are up for renewal this summer and with each one failing to maintain a grip on the starting job, significant turnover may be in the cards.
Petr Mrazek, who would be the most appealing option of the three upon hitting the open market, boasts a save percentage (.923) and GSAA (6.47) at 5-on-5 ranking in the top-30 of goalies since 2018, suggesting he could comfortably bear the brunt of a tandem workload. However, downplaying his numbers is the fact that he’s faced the third fewest shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2018 among goalies who have played at least 1000 minutes.
This is partly owing to Carolina’s identity as possession-dominating demons, which, despite their recent improvements as a defensive unit and increased focus on maintaining possession by recycling the puck into the neutral zone, is in stark contrast to the Leafs’ tactics. And yet, he saves a good amount of chances in high-danger situations which may reflect well on his ability to integrate into Toronto’s free-wheeling system. But, as has been a recurring theme of this article, inconsistent health is a concern, with Mrazek only suiting up for 4 games this season.
Carolina will most likely attempt to shore up their goaltending situation for next season by bringing in a proven starter to lead the dark horse Cup contenders. What may complicate things is that the expiring contracts of Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton must be addressed, likely eating into their budget for a starting goalie, and leaving an opening for the Leafs to pounce.
Where Do the Leafs Go From Here?
Frederik Andersen’s tenure as a Leaf should generally be viewed as a success, irrespective of the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs. Seeing as this article is being written in March and how goaltending is generally voodoo, Andersen may have reached new heights by June, singlehandedly dragging the Leafs to a championship, ensuring that he will never have to pay for a drink in Toronto until the day he dies.
Even if this fever dream materializes, and Andersen later leaves for a new challenge, Kyle Dubas can be confident in his ability to find an affordable, but imperfect, solution for next season, while comfortably walking away from the historically dicey gamble that is committing long-term to an aging goaltender solely because of their often out-dated reputation.
If a team genuinely believes that Andersen can solve their goaltending woes and back up the Brinks truck for his services, he should take the money and run. But it shouldn’t be the Leafs.