Maple Leafs conjure up bigger underdog story than David Ayers in “replacements” win

Move over EBUG controversy, the Toronto Maple Leafs just put together a huge effort to protect their playoff spot and star goalie with a bunch of defensemen who shouldn’t even still be on the team.

For a team that couldn’t beat a Zamboni driver in goal on Saturday, the Leafs looked potent offensively, sound defensively, and motivated to take two points from an equally lopsided Panthers squad.

The only problem for the Buds was their defensive pairings. Reminiscent of a split-squad team that was clearly the B team, the crew’s depth was on display here:

Dermott – Holl
Sandin – Barrie
Marincin – Liljegren
Rosen

The seven-man core consists of the injury-prone next big thing (Dermott), our should-be seventh defenseman (Holl), our best Marlies D (Sandin), should-have-been-traded guy (Barrie), Shouldn’t-have-a-contract-guy (Marincin), our second-best Marlie (Liljegren), and a member of the Colorado Avalanche (Rosen). What a team.

To compound issues, Frederick Andersen had one of the worst periods of hockey in his life. With awful rebound control, less-than-usual edge work, and uncharacteristic swimming in his crease, Andersen channelled prime James Reimer with similar results.

A vote of confidence from the head coach to start him in the second (not a popular opinion) saw Andersen settle eventually, but not without near-constant bailing out by his rag-tag group of defensemen. Yes, the replacements showed up and actually looked like a solid group of players.

The biggest improvements in the D-core were their patience on the puck, willingness to turn back and retain possession, and ability to work with their backchecking forwards to section off any Panthers pressure. Timely pinching was also on display regularly, with extra motivated teammates coving back and offensive zone possession limiting defensive zone time.

Capped off with an empty-net goal by newly crowned shutdown defender Justin Holl, the wobbling puck that somehow tracked into the vacant goal showed that the Hockey Gods don’t fulfill lofty wishes, but rather guide justified results from ice level for hardworking efforts.

Honestly, the Leafs getting any sort of performance from these players tonight was unlikely, but keeping Florida to under 30 shots on a night where Freddy didn’t have it? It’s a narrative so unlikely the David Ayres story will drift into oblivion. Move over, Zamboni EBUG, the replacements are here, and they’re aiming for the playoffs.

Why The Leafs win over Detroit was more important than it seemed

The Leafs eventually bashed in the surprisingly dangerous Red Wings on Saturday night. While they should have won, how the Leafs did it was crucial moving forward.

What do good hockey teams do? They beat teams that are worse than them and they battle with teams that echo their own talent levels. For anyone who watched the Leafs Hockey Night in Canada matchup with the Detroit Red Wings, there was probably a bit of frustration resonating early in the game more than anything else.

Frustrated with a 5-2 win?

The Buds had a ton of shots early but not from difficult areas. Subsequently, Jimmy Howard got into a bit of a groove and had a really solid first two periods. Shots on net are great for your Corsi, but limp perimeter wrist shots aren’t going to do anything but get the goalie hot.

There was also no flow to the game. The Leafs struggles with special teams zone entry again and also would stymie their own offensive zone pressure with sloppy cycles. It wasn’t a ton of fun to watch early, but thankfully some blue-collar players started to dictate play.

Frederik Andersen is also fighting the puck right now. We all know he’s a perennial slow starter in October, but his rebound control has been atrocious as of late. Jacob de la Rose capitalized on this early, killing the massive momentum the Leafs started the game with.

Why this win was so important

As mentioned, good teams win games. The Leafs were far from their sharpest in the matchup and they still got the win, eventually steamrolling the Wings along the way.

Yes, the top-6 was quiet in this game but the bottom-6 carried them; good teams will have this happen periodically throughout the season and it’s okay. Moore – Mikheyev – Kerfoot is proving to be one of the most exciting units in the NHL right now that no one outside of Leafs Nation is talking about and I can’t get enough of it. Skill, speed, hunger; it’s a recipe that is exciting and hopefully motivating for the rest of the group.

Andersen picked up his play late in this game. He ended the game strong, turning away 25 of 27 shots faced, rewarding him with a .935 save percentage. As mentioned, we know he’s a slow starter but playing as he did in this game shows he is getting close to reigning in the loose play this season.

Most importantly, the Leafs stepped on Detroit’s throat and closed out the game in style. The third period saw Kerfoot, Muzzin, and Moore all score yet again proving the bottom-6 forward group can chip in and pick up the mail if the big boys aren’t firing. They failed to do this to Montreal and St. Louis so getting it done against this quick, threatening Red Wings team is important and was impressive.

Frederik Andersen looks like he’s in mid-season form [VIDEO]

The Leafs have trimmed their roster and made their final cuts ahead of the season. The one area where there is no dispute over player choice is in goal, and Frederik Andersen looks poised to start, pulling a Cujo-like save in warm-ups.

A notoriously slow starter, Frederik Andersen will need to build off of his better than usual opening month of last season to kick start the Maple Leafs this year. In some informal breakaway drills at Leafs practice Andersen appears ready to go after summoning a windmilling Curtis Joseph for a ridiculous glove save:

An excited “ohhh” followed by an “oh baby!” perfectly punctuate the clip from the Leafs official Twitter account as the stellar tender embarrassed his teammate during the drill.

Andersen gets a lot of shit from fans, specifically around his playoff performances in the past three postseasons. A strong October from him could catapult the team forward and potentially to the top of the Atlantic Division, but it still likely wouldn’t be enough to keep the haters at bay until he proves it in the playoffs.

This season should’s be the same, however, because the Leafs team is entirely different. The d-core is completely revamped and overhauled, the bottom-six is heavily changed, and the big stars are locked in. The Leafs are in a win-now period and Andersen can relish the pressure with a better team protecting him.

The Vezina has already been credited to Vasilevsky, Bobrovsky, Price, Rinne, or for some reason Ben Bishop according to NHL.com, but no worries. When Andersen is stealing games and backstopping the Buds to the top spot in the division and potentially the league the Dane will get all the credit he’s deserved for some time. Bring on the regular season, Freddy is ready.

Imagine thinking Frederik Andersen isn’t going to win the Vezina Trophy?

Crazy, right? But some people actually think Frederik Andersen isn’t going to take home the most important trophy in the NHL, the Vezina, this season.

A new defense core, a legit backup battle behind him, and a coach trying to prove he can actually get a team out of the first round. If that isn’t the recipe for a Vezina I don’t know what is.

We’ve all been looking for stability in net since Ed Belfour manned the crease in that weird mid-2000s run of playoff appearances. Not since 2003-04 when that leather jacket-wearing dad put up a 2.13 GAA and a .918 S% have the Leafs escaped the first round of the playoffs.

The best goalie since Belfour was James Reimer so… case closed on that mystery. Regardless, the Leafs are too important to the NHL and the history of hockey to be dynastically bad, so Lou Lamoriello pulled the trigger to get Andersen from Anaheim and here we are.

A huge gripe against Anderson is his slow starts. During October in his first season with the Leafs (2016/17), Andersen went 2-2-3, in 2017/18 he put up an improved 6-5-0 record but allowed 38 goals against, and last season he put up six wins, two losses and allowed 27 goals against.

He’s trending in the right direction, but those aren’t Vezina numbers. That isn’t going to matter, however, as the Leafs completely revamped their defense to stop hemorrhaging opportunities for their opponents and give Andersen a break from facing 40+ shots a night.

Reilly – Barrie, Muzzin – Ceci, Dermott – Schmaltz/Marincin/Holl/Sandin/Liljegren/Gravel/Holloway.

Speed, vision, physicality, size; name what you want, the Leafs now have it on their balanced defensive core. If this crew can mesh and keep Anderson insulated from the insane amount of rubber he’s seen since joining the Leafs a Vezina isn’t a ridiculous goal for the Great Dane to set his sights on.

Plus, you have to figure this team is going to defend from the front. Tavares’ line and Matthews’ line can sustain puck possession with their speed and skill, while new addition Alexander Kerfoot will hopefully etch out a spot as the leader on a hitting/forechecking line that has a ton of offensive prowess too.

Face it, Andersen has the Vezina wrapped up. The Canadian duo of Price and Holtby can take the year off, same with the Florida boys Vasilevskiy and Bobrovsky. Andersen doesn’t have to change a thing about his game because his defense is going to win this trophy for him.

The writing’s on the wall; Goodbye Garret Sparks, hello Michael Hutchinson!

Looks like the Leafs found their backup goalie for next season and still somehow saved money over Garret Sparks’ contract! The Leafs inked Michael Hutchinson to a one-year deal worth $700k and it’s becoming clear, Garret Sparks time with the Maple Leafs is quickly coming to an end.

We all saw this coming, right? Last season he played in 20 games for the Leafs and put up some sub-standard numbers. A 3.15 GAA, a .902 save percentage, 8/20 quality starts, allowed 4+ goals in seven games including 6 GA in three separate occasions. Those aren’t numbers that can be associated with a backup keeper on an elite team. The Leafs can’t trust the player right now, and Hutchinson looks like a better option as Andersen’s relief.

Hutchinson, last season, put up some better numbers, albeit at the AHL level. In his 5 games with the Leafs last season, he put up a .914 save percentage, and 2.64 GAA. In the AHL he posted a .910 S% and a GAA of 2.70. While not elite, Dubas, who has more than a solid pulse on the AHL team, has more faith in Hutchinson as Andersen’s back up and this is probably due to his NHL experience over Sparks’.

With the Raptor’s success with Kawhi Leonard’s load management, I could see a shift to resting Frederik Andersen more this season. Instead of mostly back-to-back games off, getting Andersen down to less than 60 games is a must for a deep playoff run.

Goalie tandems are also all the rage these days in the NHL so why not implement one in Toronto too? The next step after Hutchinson’s signing has to be defense focused. Improve team defense and watch the goalie numbers skyrocket. All the best, Sparks, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Edmonton next season!

The plan is now set for the uncharacteristically strong Leafs goalie depth chart. Andersen and Hutchinson at the NHL level, then Kasimir Kaskisuo and Joseph Woll at the AHL level. Mix in Ian Scott to the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL and we’re all set. All three teams are poised for championship runs and the internal competition and depth should keep every player motivated to take the next step.

Take Warning: Kasimir Kaskisuo is not the Maple Leafs answer

Forget the two recent losses in the Calder Cup playoffs, Kasimir Kaskisuo has been playing great for the Marlies this season. Just please don’t get your hopes up for him next season to make the Leafs.

AHL and Calder Cup success for a goalie prospect? Who does that sound like, Leaf fans? I’m not saying Kaskisuo and Garret Sparks are one and the same, but I’m also not saying that they aren’t.

Either way, with the Leafs ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in round one, it’s been great watching the Baby Buds succeed in the AHL postseason. One of the heroes not named Bracco, Timashov, Liljegren, or Sandin has been goalie Kaskisuo, without a doubt. But, let’s not get it twisted here, he isn’t the next best goalie in Leafs nation.

AHL Lifer?

That’s where I have him pegged. He and Sparks can duke it out for AHL supremacy and the Aldege Bastien Memorial Award (advantage Sparks). Is it harsh to throw this B-Level trajectory on a thriving 25-year-old player currently succeeding in said league? No.

It’s really not. Criticism allows for truth to be separated from bias, and for Kaskisuo the criticism on him is his physical stature. What do Frederik Andersen, Carey Price, Andriy Vasilevsky, and Pekka Rinne all have in common? When you look at them in net there is no sight of mesh behind them.

Kaskisuo, while 6’2″ is very slight. I guess chalk it up to his style, but he lacks the intimidating look of an elite goalie. Likewise, his crease control and vision will be a stumbling block for his success. By this, I mean that after the first shot, Kaskisuo sells out and gives up position to try and make the next save, rather than reducing rebounds and using edgework to stay in position for second chances.

Next in line

Frederik Andersen has two years left on his deal. The Maple Leafs have some serious questions to answer at that time about the state of the club and who is going to be the starting goalie. I think we’ll see a short term Andersen deal, but if not is it up to Kaskisuo to step up?

Again, no is the answer here. I’d be utterly shocked if Kaskisuo is with the Leafs organization at that time because budding superstar goalie prospects Joseph Woll and Ian Scott will likely be in the AHL and pushing each other for the Maple Leafs throne.

The likes of Sparks and Kaskisuo will probably be afterthoughts once these two top-tier prospects get closer to NHL debuts. Hutchinson, Sparks, Kaskisuo. All three are of the same ilk; close to the top level of play in their position but haven’t shown enough to enter that level of play.

As much as Sparks isn’t anything but a low-cost bench warmer for the Leafs, Kaskisuo is too. Don’t let his Calder Cup 1.96 GAA and .935% save percentage fool you.

For the first time in years the Maple Leafs have goalie depth

Organizational depth became a focal point for Brendan Shanahan took over the Maple Leafs and implemented his Shana-plan. The hiring of Kyle Dubas supported this sentiment as he was then appointed to take charge of the Marlies as GM and stabilize the AHL team’s structure. For both Shanahan and Dubas the stockpiling of top prospects and development of draft picks has seen a rise in high caliber players within the Maple Leafs farm system. The area of goaltending has seemingly fallen to the wayside in previous regimes but it has been restocked with some impressive recruits, all pressing for the eventual starting job with the big league club. Here is a breakdown of the depth of the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltenders.

Frederik Andersen:

The notoriously slow starter turned Vezina candidate, Frederik Andersen has been an elite starting goaltender in his tenure with the Maple Leafs. He was acquired before the start of the 2016/17 season in a trade with Anaheim for a late first round pick. The deal was executed by Lou Lamoriello and was met with some skepticism as Andersen had never played a full season as a starter. Two years on the deal looks like a steal for the Maple Leafs as Andersen has put up back to back seasons with .918 save percentages, and a 2.81 goals against average.

Andersen also faced more shots than any other goaltender last season, with 2029 shots against and racked up five shutouts. He was playing lights out for the majority of the season and helped stabilize a young NHL team that continued to grow on the ice. At only 28 years old, and with three years left on his deal Andersen will likely stave off the mounting competition for the starting job for the remainder of his Leaf’s contract. He’s elite, he’s calm in the net, compact in his positioning, and gives the Leafs stability on the back end. A top quality starting goalie for the Leafs in their early years as a contending team.

Curtis McElhinney:

The veteran back up to Frederik Andersen, Curtis McElhinney has performed admirably in his time with the Maple Leafs. He re-upped on a two year contract for $850,000 per year before the 2017 season, so he will be playing out the last year on the big league team before likely moving on or retiring. At 35 years old McElhinney has been a solid career backup goalie and has cemented that in his time with Toronto.

He has helped in securing back to back playoff seasons, and even has his name in the Maple Leafs record books as the holder of best single season save percentage (minimum 500 shots) at .925%. His most impressive moment as a Maple Leafs came in the second last game of the regular season against Pittsburgh. A win would see the Leafs make the playoffs and with 48 seconds left Sidney Crosby was robbed blind on a cross crease pass that McElhinney tracked and beautifully stopped with his left pad.

He’s a bit unorthodox style-wise, but he has been serviceable as a Maple Leaf and has provided stability in a position that in underrated by many for importance to a team.

Garret Sparks:

One of the Maple Leafs most important prospects is goaltender Garret Sparks. He made a 17 game appearance in the 2015/16 season for the Maple Leafs where he became the first ever Maple Leafs goalie to debut with a shutout. However, his play dipped along with his teams and he was sent back to the minors. Last season with the Marlies was one for the record books. Sparks had a 1.79 GAA and a .936 save% earning him the Baz Bastion award for most outstanding AHL goalie, as well as the Hap Holmes award he shared with goalie battery-mate for lowest goals allowed per game with a 2.26 average on the season. Oh yeah, and he won the Calder Cup.

Sparks currently has one more season at a the league minimum cap hit before he hits RFA status. He is extremely important to the Leafs because goaltending is at a premium in the league and while he could have an effect on the actual roster he could be more important as a trade piece. The Leafs are currently set on their starter while Sparks is pushing for NHL minutes after performing extremely well in the minors. Carolina, or Phili… need a goalie?

Calvin Pickard:

Pickard was acquired last season via trade between the Leafs and Vegas that saw prospect Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 sixth-round pick. Pickard has 86 NHL games under his belt, but was sent directly to the minors to support Sparks and the Marlies on their quest for the the Calder Cup. He played in 33 games for the Marlies last season and combined with Sparks for an award winning season. He has the skills and experience to make him a solid NHL backup or AHL starter, and should be looking for that opportunity.

For the Leafs, Pickard is in the same boat as Sparks. Surely after this upcoming season one of the two players should be moved into the backup role behind Andersen. That leaves the other as a likely trade candidate with the younger goalies in the system maturing to ascending to the AHL. Whether it is Sparks or Pickard that makes the leap to the Maple Leafs for the 2019/20 season, another year of dominant AHL play for the two goalies should see their skills develop further and their trade value spike, too.

Kasimir Kaskisuo:

Kasimir Kaskisuo is the first goalie that should be looked at as a real, true prospect in the Leafs organization. At 24 years old the Finnish born goalie went un-drafted and played out his development in the NCHC with the University of Minnesota-Duluth for two season. Kaskisuo put up great numbers in his two seasons, and was signed by the leafs following his college career. He has struggled in the ECHL with the Orlando Solar Bears, posting a 3.45 GAA in 32 games during the 2016/17 season.

The following season the Leafs loaned out Kaskisuo to the Chicago Wolves in the AHL. With a move more reminiscent of a soccer transaction than a hockey one, the Leafs showed their interest in their prospect, finding game time for their player in an unorthodox way. He’s young, he shows promise, he’s excelled at the college level; all were signs that the Leafs need to fit him into their system and he replayed their investment with Chicago. Kaskisuo played 28 games for the Wolves with a 2.38 GAA and .914 save% last season.

He is a smothering goalie with good size and uses his strong edge work to make him surprisingly mobile in the crease. He can quickly seal off the bottom of the net and glide from post to post with ease. Look for him to transition back to the Marlies should one of Sparks or Pickard move on from the team or graduate to the NHL.

Joseph Woll:

At just 20 years old former Leafs third round pick in the 2016 draft has been having great success at Boston College in the NCAA H-East League. Woll, a product of the US National Team development program, showed that the Leafs were drafting for need rather than taking the best available player. Bibeau a sixth round pick, and Sparks a seventh round pick, were the last two goalies selected by the Leafs, but both were late round picks. Woll’s selection was an investment in a highly touted young player who will hopefully ascend through the Leaf’s system and be a homegrown talent the Leafs can build upon.

According to DobberProspects.com Woll has good size (6’3″, 197lbs) and high potential for reaching the NHL. He is expected to be selected to the USA’s World Junior team and is the probable starter for that tournament. At 20 years old he should continue to play at Boston College for the next 1-2 years with the log jam in the AHL at the goalie position for the Marlies.

His playing style is similar to Andersen; compact, controlled, and down early. He is very quick with his edges allowing him to recover from blocked shots, deflections, or first saves to square up to secondary chances. He looks extremely promising, and even though he is years away from featuring for the Leafs, keep the name Woll in your memory.

Ian Scott:

Like Woll, Ian Scott was a early/mid draft pick (fourth round in 2017) and is a solid prospect to add to the organizational goalie depth chart. Physically, Scott has a presence it net, registering at 6’3″ but needs to cultivate some mass as he is only 175lbs. He uses his light frame to be an fast, athletic goalie. He has a poor team in front of him in the WHL in the Prince Albert Raiders, which has inflated Scott’s numbers, but the Leaf’s drafted him on his technical skills and will look to implement him into the AHL system in the coming years, according to Darren Pang of the NHL Network.

The future is bring in Leaf land when looking at the goaltenders of the future. The best part? The current team isn’t being forced into playing any of these players too early in their development to help them contend at the time being. The Marlies are stocked with two elite AHL goalies, Kaskisuo is promising and looks ready to replace either Sparks or Pickard when they depart, and the Leaf’s goalie draft picks from 2016 and 2017 are highly touted and developing well.

For what feels like the first time in years the Maple Leafs are filling the cupboards with solid prospects, letting them marinade at the appropriate levels, and not forcing any players into premature situations. We all have heard that goalies take longer to develop than any other position, but when you have players staggered at different ages and levels of play it makes the transition from one player to the next more natural and less stressful for the fan base.

Leaf’s fans can smile and exhale, the future of their crease appears to be in solid hands.