Andersen, not Matthews, is the Maple Leafs' real MVP
Andersen is none of those guys, but he is Toronto's undisputed MVP.
He proved it again Wednesday against the Nashville Predators, winning while making 40-plus saves for an NHL-leading fifth time and sending the Stanley Cup finalists away with only one point when they entirely deserved two.
The crowd at Air Canada Centre noticed, too, as chants of "Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!" bellowed throughout the third period, overtime, and shootout, as Andersen single-handedly got his team a point and then stole another.
The unassuming 28-year-old has done the impossible - he's provided the Maple Leafs with legitimate No. 1 goaltending, finally, and despite a heavy workload has, for the most part, somehow managed to fly under the radar.
Andersen, two nights after being removed from Monday's game following a skate to the head, demanded that everyone take note. There's no longer any doubt: He's as important - if not more - as any of the kids the rebuilding-on-steroids Maple Leafs have been built around.
Two more things are clear:
- Toronto, with deep playoff aspirations, will go as far as Andersen takes the team, despite Matthews' otherworldly talents.
- Andersen was absolutely worth the price (a first- and second-round draft pick, and $25 million over five years) - paid to acquire and sign him.
The truth is, Andersen can already claim he's the best Maple Leafs goalie in modern times. He's been that good - and mostly everyone before him was that bad.
Numbers don't lie
Goaltending hasn't been the Maple Leafs' strong suit. Especially since the 2004-05 lockout. A lack of quality in the crease is arguably the main reason Toronto's hosted only six playoff games in 13 years.
Here's a fact: Andersen's the best Maple Leafs goalie to play at least 100 games for the club in the save-percentage era.
Yep, the list of Toronto goalies with at least 100 caps and a .910 save percentage is only five deep. Told you, it's been bleak in the crease.
It gets better for Andersen. He's doing what he's doing while facing, on average, the most shots per game of any Maple Leafs goalie to play at least 100 games in the save-percentage era:
|Goalie||Avg shots faced per game||GP|
Andersen, it seems, thrives on the extra work.
Elite and cheap
It gets better, still.
Below are this season's top goalies who've played at least 30 games with at least a .913 save percentage (the 2016-17 league average), and their salary-cap hits:
*Jones signed a six-year extension with a $5.75-million cap hit that kicks in next season.
The main takeaway: Among this season's league-leading goalies who are 28 or older, Andersen has the third-lowest cap hit at $5 million per season. Only Devan Dubnyk and Ben Bishop come cheaper, and they're three years older than Andersen, with Dubnyk turning 32 in May.
These details are crucial, especially when you remember Marner, Matthews, Nylander, and Kasperi Kapanen - all 21 and younger - will need long-term contract extensions.
The Maple Leafs are set in goal through 2021. That's their Stanley Cup window.
Trading assets for Andersen and committing to him for five years and $25 million two months after finally bottoming out - and only a few days before drafting Matthews - was a risk. A massive one. Especially considering "The Rebuild" was mercifully underway, and factoring in Toronto's history of bringing in goalies with not-too-big track records from California; Toskala's career essentially ended after his Maple Leafs stint, while Bernier, despite a phenomenal first season in Toronto, remains a backup, albeit a serviceable one.
The Athletic's James Mirtle put it best in June 2016, writing in The Globe and Mail:
... the Leafs see something exceptional in Andersen, something that warranted what looks like - from the outside - a risky bet on a goalie without a long track record.
In the past, those bets haven't turned out well in Toronto.
What's curious about it all is the Leafs had time on their side here. They didn't need to unearth a high-end goaltender right now because they don't need to be very competitive next season, not with how young the roster is and not with how far they have to climb from 30th place. They're not winning the Stanley Cup in 2017. They could have made some lower level wagers on younger, cheaper goaltenders and waited to find "the one" when the flurry of movement comes at the position sometime in the next 12 months.
Whatever the outcome, this is one trade and one contract that will go a long way toward defining Brendan Shanahan's time in charge.
It's that big of a move. It's a goalie.
No, the Maple Leafs weren't winning - and didn't win - the Stanley Cup in 2017. But who could have imagined, despite their clear flaws, they'd be in the conversation, on pace for more than 100 points, in 2018?
The gamble paid off. Andersen's the real deal. He's going to need some rest down the stretch, but for the first time since Belfour in 2004 - the last 100-point season for the blue and white - Toronto's set in the crease.
The Maple Leafs continue to get it right. One day, maybe, that'll get easier to believe. We're not there yet. But, like the Maple Leafs themselves, we're awfully close.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)