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Why Frederik Andersen is Maple Leafs’ greatest X-Factor

TORONTO — The 2021 trial of Frederik Andersen will be conducted in two courtrooms. One is located between the pipes, the other between the ears.

As he prepares to embark on what should either be his last hurrah or deepest playoff run with the Toronto Maple Leafs — can you re-sign a starting goalie after five consecutive first-round losses? — the play of the soft-spoken Andersen will come under the harshest of light.

Since arriving in Toronto via Anaheim in 2016, thanks to a shrewd bit of trade-and-sign business by then-GM Lou Lamoriello, Andersen has established himself as the best Leafs goalie since Ed Belfour.

The great Dane recorded three straight 30-win seasons and was cruising to a fourth before the 2019-20 regular season was snuffed out. In 2017-28, he set a franchise record with 38 Ws. He represented the Blue and White at an all-star game. One year ago this month, he became the fastest European goalie in history to reach 200 NHL wins.

Since joining a Toronto roster known for its efficiency in the O-zone, not the D-zone, Andersen ranks first league-wide in starts (244), saves (7,142) and shots faced (7,798). He rates third overall in wins (136), eighth in shutouts (13) and 10th in save percentage among those with a minimum of 150 appearances (.916).

The NHL’s average save percentage these days is .910. Andersen’s career save percentage is .917. And that figure only dips to .916 come post-season.

To consider Andersen as anything less than a top-10 goaltender in the world is folly.

When Joe Thornton was asked why he believes his new team gives him a shot at the Stanley Cup, the first four words out of his Hall of Fame mouth were: “I love their goalie.”

And yet…

As a Leaf, Andersen has been the second-best goalie in each of his four elimination series. Certainly, he’s not solely to blame for Toronto’s inability to get over the hump, but he’s not immune either.

“The more I can focus like a normal game and not having thoughts about how big of a game it is, that’s when I played the best in the playoffs,” said Andersen, dissecting last summer’s defeat to Columbus.

“For players, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a playoff game that you got to hit a little harder and stuff like that. But as a goalie, you can’t save the puck harder. You can’t over-push in your movements. Going forward, I think that’s the biggest lesson.”

Excuses gone. Pressure on.

The 31-year-old will be given the net on whatever midwinter’s evening the season opens, but only after hearing his name kicked around in off-season trade discussions (the Carolina Hurricanes were one team that kicked tires) and needing a heart-to-heart or seven from his general manager to clear the air and set expectations.

“I know where the Fred speculation started and comes from, and rather than address it publicly or be hostile about it, I just addressed it directly with Fred,” said Dubas, who was irked that info went public.

“He and I have had many discussions over the last month or so about that. So, he knows where we stand directly.”

Needing a bounce-back from a career-worst saves rate in 2019-20 (.909), Andersen arrived in Toronto to train alongside teammates in November, two months prior to an expected puck drop. This is the earliest he has shown up to work, and coach Sheldon Keefe is impressed by the work ethic and drive.

Multiple factors make the 2021 test particularly unique and pressurized for Andersen, who has confessed to struggles with sport’s mental hurdles in the past:

1. Legitimate competition from below. Michael Hutchinson is no longer the Leafs’ second-string goalie; he’s their fourth-stringer. Dubas must find out what he has in 28-year-old backup Jack Campbell, the Leafs’ only NHL goalie is signed through 2021-22, and an athlete still striving for No. 1 status.

“He’s a helluva goalie as well,” Andersen notes. Lurking in the shadows is a confident and cap-friendly Aaron Dell, 31. Dell made a career-high 33 appearances for San Jose last season, outperformed Martin Jones, and will not be satisfied with a Marlies gig.

2. The carrot of a juicy payday. Andersen has never been an unrestricted free agent. Questions surround either the number of years his fellow ’21 UFA goalies have left (Pekka Rinne, 38; Tuukka Rask, 34) or their stability as true No. 1s (Jordan Binnington, Petr Mrazek, David Rittich, Philipp Grubauer). Andersen may well be the safest long-term bet of the bunch. Sergei Bobrovsky money doesn’t await, but Jacob Markstom money could.

3.A highly compacted schedule. Bet on the NHL to jam four games per week in order to make the most of a delayed start. Andersen is a workhorse who wants the net always, but now more than ever, tandems are in vogue and an increase in back-to-backs leads to an emphasis on load management and more opportunities for Campbell or Dell to get hot.

There is greater urgency in Leafland to win the division. Slumps won’t be treated patiently, and Andersen does have a reputation as a slow starter.

4. Trade winds. The goalie market was flooded in this fall, so fetching a respectable return for Andersen (a top-four defenceman with term) proved futile. That said, the structure of Andersen’s deal makes for an intriguing card to play. He’s been paid a $4 million signing bonus already and only requires $1 million in salary. That’s gotta be tempting for cash-conscious owners.

If trade rumours swirl in-season, how does Andersen — holder of a 10-team no-trade list — respond?

5. Best Leafs defence yet. On a more positive note, the blue line in front of Andersen hasn’t been this deep or experienced since he left a good Ducks squad. Conventional wisdom suggests that a decrease in Grade-A chances against will help Andersen rebound to form.

When asked about his future as a Leaf beyond 2020-21, Andersen has lobbed the team’s major storyline over to fate — “Whatever’s gonna happen, happens,” he said — but the goalie’s own performance, mentally and physically, will have great sway in how this intriguing narrative unfolds over the next seven months.

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