October 11, 2016 - 2:08 PM
TORONTO - There were three sticks in the hand of Maple Leafs assistant equipment manager Bobby Hastings, and Frederik Andersen had to choose which two would travel with him to Ottawa. The 27-year-old did a quick examination, confidently made his choices and then moved onto other matters.
If Toronto's new No. 1 goaltender was on edge ahead of his debut as a Leaf, he didn't show it.
"No, I try not to go too much up and down," said Andersen, a six foot four, 230-pound goaltender with bright red hair. "I try to just stay even-keel and focus on what I can control and that's working hard on the ice and being prepared. That's what I aim to do every day. I know once I do those things and focus the right way I'll be fine in games."
Andersen was more concerned with getting back into the rhythm of NHL hockey, eager to find his game again after a delayed start to training camp. He was also wary about trying to do too much in Wednesday's season opener against the Ottawa Senators and given the expectations of him, that's understandable.
Toronto not only swung a trade for the former third-round pick this summer, dealing a pair of draft picks to Anaheim, but signed the NHL's only Danish netminder to a five-year deal worth US$25 million before he'd even played a game as a Leaf.
His tenure got off to a rocky start ahead of training camp. Andersen was expected to play (and perhaps start) for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey, only to come down with a suspected shoulder injury in an Olympic qualifier. The injury forced him out of the World Cup and delayed his start to the pre-season. Andersen got into his first game just eight days before the opener, a two-period showing in Saskatoon.
He stopped 13 of 14 shots that night before yielding 10 goals in his next two starts, rust certainly a factor according to head coach Mike Babcock.
"But that's one position we're pretty comfortable with," Babcock said, referring to the Toronto crease, which includes both Andersen and backup Jhonas Enroth. "As for all goaltenders it doesn't go right all the time, but once you get rhythm back usually if you've been good and that's in your DNA it's usually pretty consistent."
"It felt okay," Andersen said of his brief pre-season showing. "It definitely shows when you haven't had those game situations in a while."
"Now it's the real deal and we want to get off on the right foot here," he added.
Andersen used the three exhibition outings to work on his aggression in the crease, trusting in his ability to move quickly to avoid getting beat by any quick passes or shots.
"That's the confidence you've got to gain back when you haven't played in a while," said Andersen. "You get that feeling you know you can get to the spots you need to be."
Andersen spent his first three NHL seasons as a part-time starter in Anaheim, playing a career-high 54 games with a .914 save percentage two years ago. He split the crease with John Gibson last season (37 starts for Andersen, 38 for Gibson), pulling ahead in a post-season that ended painfully in a seven-game first round loss.
Toronto gambled big on his ability to solve a need that's simmered since Ed Belfour departed the club in 2006. The Leafs have shuffled through 17 goaltenders since then, including three last season. Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson and Jonathan Bernier were all supposed to secure to the crease at various points.
Bernier was acquired from Los Angeles under circumstance similar to Andersen, a quality netminder on a top defensive team. Unlike Andersen, who's made 114 career starts, Bernier had only 54 starts under his belt with the Kings before he joined Toronto. While he hit a few highs in his first season, he ultimately failed to be the answer the club was hoping for.
Bernier most certainly failed to fit under Babcock, briefly demoted to the minors last December following a turbulent 0-8-3 start to the season.
It's perhaps that instability which led the Leafs front office to not only trade for Andersen but lock him up long-term.
The Leafs won't be anything like the juggernaut Andersen left in Anaheim, but they also won't be the defensive disaster of Bernier's early days in Toronto. Dealt to the Ducks in the summer, Bernier struggled under the awesome nightly workload of his first two seasons as a Leaf and his stumbles continued into last season.
Whether Andersen can indeed solidify the Leafs crease is perhaps the biggest question of the team's season. An off-year would not only cause further scrutiny of the club's decision to sign him until 2021, but keep instability alive in the Toronto crease.
Andersen said his goals for the year are strictly team-related.
"I want to be in the playoffs," he said. "That's the main goal to get back there."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016