Who’s Starting Game One
Yesterday Fredrick Andersen returned to action, however it was with the Toronto Marlies. Andersen was placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) on April 10th, retroactive to March 19th. Before being placed on LTIR Andersen had been playing at a level that most fans were not happy with. Through 23 games he had a .897 save percentage and a 2.91 goals-against average. Yesterday’s game with the Marlies marked the first time in 6 weeks that Andersen had played a game.
Players on LTIR are eligible to go down to the minors for a conditioning stint for up to 3 games, so do not be surprised if we see Andersen play another game with the Marlies on Saturday (Confirmed by Keefe on Friday) when they play the Manitoba Moose. After playing only 31 minutes on Thursday afternoon, Andersen will take the next step in his progression and play a full 60 when the Marlies take the ice on Saturday.
So what does all this mean? Well simply put, the Leafs want to see what Andersen has before they make a very important choice on who to start in game one of the playoffs. In a typical year, your starter going into game one would be Anderson, however, with him being injured this year and Jack Campbell rocking a 16-2-2 record complemented by a .924 save percentage and a 2.19 goals-against average, this decision is not an easy one.
Common sense indicates that you ride the hot hand going into the playoffs, and I tend to agree with that. However, Jack Campbell has never played a minute of playoff hockey and with a start on Saturday taking him to 21 games, this will be the second most games he has played in an NHL season (He played 31, started 25 with LA in 2018/19). The experience is lacking, not the skill.
Campbell has arguably been one of the highlights of this Leafs season after a decade of mediocre backup goaltending and a poor approach to how the backups should be used. Campbell has played in 20 games this year, winning 16 of them and grabbing a possible 34 of 40 points. Those are some outstanding numbers for a guy who is not your starter.
Andersen on the other hand has not been himself, a nagging injury has seen him battle through games and he struggles to make the simple saves that you need from an NHL level goalie. The confidence level in Andersen’s play was dropping before it was announced he was injured, and now we know what the issue is, there is doubt he will be able to return to form before game one of the playoffs. The regular season has the Leafs playing 3 more games this year, and with him playing in the AHL on Saturday that rules him out for one of those. Is 2 games enough time for him to get back into a rhythm?
So, What Is The Answer
The simple fact is that there is not a clear answer. If Andersen looks NHL ready for game one of the playoffs and you go with him, the Leafs risk having a goaltender in the net that is not ready to be back. But if it pays off you have a bonified number one goaltender in the net that has playoff experience to get you deep into a cup run. (I know he has not left the first round, but he has experience playing in playoff games)
Jack Campbell is a mystery box when it comes to playoff performance. We do not know what he has to offer, and the simple fact is he has no experience playing in those high-pressure games. We cannot say he will not succeed but we also cannot say he will succeed. The hot hand right now is Jack, and logic dictates you ride that into the playoffs, but will the unknowns around Campbell persuade the front office otherwise?
There are also other factors surrounding Andersens return, the dreaded salary cap. Today the Leafs have $6,998,164 in cap space (Thanks CapFriendly), but that is changing daily with all the moves they are making. If Andersen were to come off LTIR and return to the Leafs squad, they would need to ensure they have 5 million in cap space available to accommodate Andersen. When the playoffs hit this will not be an issue as the salary cap is not a thing during the playoffs.
There are too many unknowns at this point to put a name in the starters net for game one of the playoffs, but with all the moves the Leafs are doing and the narrative they are putting out around Andersen, It seems they want him there for game one. Will it be the Andersen we all love and know, or will it be the Andersen that handed Jack Campbell the net this season? Only time will tell.
Whatever decision is made, you can expect some fireworks from fans thinking it should be the other guy. There are positives to both guys playing, but there are also negatives. It will be a fascinating story to follow as the season wraps up a week from now. Until then, all we can do is wonder and shout into the void known as Twitter.
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