In the Crease: Exploring Toronto Maple Leafs Glut in Net

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs Goaltending
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The Toronto Maple Leafs currently hold six goaltenders under contract heading into the 2018-19 season. Now, obviously not all six expect to play in the NHL next season, and most teams have more than just the two you see on the nightly roster. An average team has at least two more goaltenders under contract in order to cover themselves in the case of injury or substandard performance. Typically, both goalies on the team’s AHL affiliate are signed with the NHL team, and sometimes you’ll see another guy or two after that.

Toronto’s six might appear to be a standard number, but the guys making up that total create more of a head-scratching situation.

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In the Crease: The Glut in Net for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Of the six netminders for the Leafs, four have NHL experience. Both the other two completed NCAA stints and have bounced between the AHL and ECHL over the two years since. There’s little doubt that the two fighting through the minors want to hang on to an AHL job. Unfortunately for them both, they’ve got those four others ahead of them on Toronto’s depth chart.

And that’s just viewing the bottom portion of the puzzle.

Not only do the guys at the bottom want to secure time, but all four of those goalies with NHL time hope to play at the highest level more consistently. All this competition, while good for the final product Toronto puts on the ice, will inevitably leave at least a couple guys disappointed. Simply put, there aren’t enough NHL jobs to satisfy four goalies on one team. There aren’t enough NHL and AHL jobs combined to satisfy all six.

Starting at the Top: Frederik Andersen

The easiest part of this six-headed monster to identify is the one at the very top. Frederik Andersen holds down the fort for the Maple Leafs as their bonafide number one. Heading into the third year of his five-year contract worth $5.0 million annually, Andersen’s been steady and consistent. He started 66 games last year with a .918 save percentage; he started 66 games two years ago with a .918 save percentage. Nope, you didn’t have deja vu. That’s just how consistent he is. 

His career save percentage through 257 games played is, you guessed it, .918. Andersen boasts an awesome win-loss record for a guy with only five pro seasons under his belt, sitting at 148-63-31.

Next in Line: Fighting for Back-up

Stealing Andersen’s job seems all but impossible, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t games to be played as his number-two. After Andersen on the depth chart, things get real interesting.

The incumbent back-up, Curtis McElhinney, has been a back-up for the entirety of his ten-year NHL career. At 35 years old, he’s beginning to run on fumes. He did go 11-5-1 in 15 starts for the Leafs last season, though. If Toronto wants a guy they can trust with a larger number of starts, McElhinney probably isn’t the guy. He’s averaged under 20 games played per season since entering the league, and typically your workload doesn’t reach career-highs at 35.

Sparks Flying

A full decade younger than McElhinney is the next Leaf up: 25-year-old Garret Sparks. Sparks currently sits listed as the second rostered goalie for the Leafs on CapFriendly; McElhinney actually appears listed in the “minors”, therefore behind Sparks on the depth chart. Whether that will become a reality is still to be seen, but Sparks did himself a lot of favors with his play in the AHL last season.

Back in April at the conclusion of the season, Sparks received enough votes to be named the AHL’s most outstanding goaltender. The league awarded him the Aldege Bastien Memorial Award in recognition of that accomplishment. Sparks compiled an outstanding 31-9-1 record with a 1.79 GAA and save percentage of .936. He’s young, and it appears he’s ready for the next level since he dominates in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies.

Back in 2015-16, Sparks did get an opportunity to start a run of games in the NHL. Then 22, Sparks didn’t play outstanding; he also didn’t have the strongest crew in front of him then though either. Finishing under the .900 save percentage clip through 17 games, Sparks has done his time in the minors and deserves another, more appropriate, opportunity.

Pickard Running Out of Runway

On the flip side, the Leafs also have goaltender Calvin Pickard. He’s one year older than Sparks, but had a very different opportunity at the NHL level when he got his shot. The two both received their first crack at an NHL game after playing three professional seasons beneath the NHL. While Sparks struggled, Pickard put up a .932 save percentage over 16 games with the Colorado Avalanche.

This explains, then, why Pickard continuing receiving starts in the NHL while Sparks returned to Toronto’s farm team. However, Pickard’s numbers dipped slightly every year after. He started 50 games for the Avs in their historically bad 2016-17 campaign before being claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights at the expansion draft last summer.

Pickard simply hasn’t been the same young stud he looked to be back in that first taste of NHL hockey. Although he’s roughly Sparks’ age, his window of opportunity is closing faster, likely because his poor NHL numbers cover a much larger sample size. Its hard to envision him cracking the roster ahead of McElhinney, much less the sizzling Sparks.

And as for a true side-by-side comparison, Pickard and Sparks competed together last season for the Marlies. As mentioned above, Sparks finished 31-9-1 and was the AHL goaltender of the year. Pickard’s 21-9-1 record, although still good, features the same amount of losses with ten fewer games played. His .918 save percentage is really good too, but Sparks’ .936 was fantastic.

The Depth Guys

So, we’ve explored the “top four”, so to speak. Beneath that crowd lie two more youngsters: Kasimir Kaskisuo and Eamon McAdam. Both are 24 years old, both played NCAA Div I, and both have been bouncing between the ECHL and AHL since 2015-16.

Kaskisuo is signed for two more seasons. Most recently, he played 28 AHL games last season for the Chicago Wolves. He finished 13-13-0 with a .914 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. He struggled in two ECHL starts last year too, but obviously played primarily in the AHL.

McAdam, on the other hand, spent the bulk of 2017-18 in the ECHL with the Worcester Railers. Still on his entry-level contract, he’s likely the bottom rung on Toronto’s goalie ladder.

Leafs Left with Options

With all six guys in mind, the pecking order isn’t as clear as would be ideal. The top spot obviously belongs to Andersen, and the bottom probably McAdam. Kaskisuo then falls fifth, but he could serve as a decent AHL option. Sparks, McElhinney and Pickard sit second, third and fourth, but not necessarily in that order. Training camp and pre-season will sort those specifics out.

Regardless how the pieces fall together, the Leafs will have flexibility at the goalie position to make moves. Toronto could trade or package any of those “middle” goalies to acquire a piece they maybe feel would be more beneficial to the team. Goaltending is not a position they have to worry about for a long time to come, so moving one of Pickard, McElhinney or Sparks is definitely in the cards.

Possible Scenarios (Remedies) for the Leafs

The most likely scenario, it seems, is for Sparks to become Andersen’s backup. He could probably play 25-35 games for the Leafs, providing more rest to Andersen than he’s had prior to playoffs since joining Toronto. To be safe, just in case Sparks still struggles to translate AHL dominance to NHL ability, they’ll want either Pickard or McElhinney as their third-string.

Through training camp and pre-season, Pickard, Sparks and McElhinney will have plenty of eyes on them. If McElhinney appears to be slowing with age, he could end up on waivers or part of a trade to another franchise with space for another goalie. On the other hand, if Pickard is still treading water, he could find himself leaving the organization in a similar fashion.

If Things Stay as They Are…

There is probably some scenario where all six guys are still Leafs for 2018-19. If that happens, it’ll mean a bunch of goalies end up buried beneath one another. Kaskisuo could, right now, back up Pickard in the AHL while Sparks backs up Andersen. Or, Kaskisuo could back up (or split time with) McElhinney while Sparks backs up Andersen. Unfortunately, keeping both Pickard and McElhinney forces Kaskisuo down, and really doesn’t do much developing for the team at the AHL level. After all, that’s the why NHL clubs want AHL affiliates.

While that might not be ideal, it could be the situation for the Leafs if things stay as they are today. Having too many goalies is one of the most difficult circumstances to navigate, because icetime is more limited there than at any other position. Its impossible to grow without an appropriate level of challenge. Simultaneously, you can’t improve if you aren’t playing enough.

In order to both provide the highest quality goaltending to the Leafs at the NHL level while also properly developing their depth at the position, Toronto probably needs to reduce their group by one body.

TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 10: Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for play to resume against the Ottawa Senators during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 10, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Senators 6-3. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)