TORONTO — Given how well these first 20 games have unfolded, a flat effort by the Toronto Maple Leafs was not on its own any cause for alarm.
The league’s best power play went 0-for-7 during Monday’s 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames and its hottest goal-scorer, Auston Matthews, failed to register a point for the first time in 17 games. It was bound to happen eventually.
“I think we’ve shown that this is not us,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team has a league-best .750 points percentage to prove it.
Where there might be some room for worry, however, is the status of No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen. He was a surprise scratch at Scotiabank Arena. His replacement, Michael Hutchinson, said he got word early in the day that he’d be drawing his second start of the season against the Flames but there was no prior indication anything was wrong.
Andersen took part in a morning skate with teammates that lasted no more than 10 minutes on Monday — incredibly short by normal standards, but a sensible approach before Toronto’s sixth game in nine nights.
He occupied the starter’s net and everything appeared to be normal. At least until the team announced he was out with a “lower-body injury” less than an hour from puck drop.
And it certainly doesn’t sound like we should expect to see Andersen return to the crease for Wednesday’s rematch with Calgary.
“He’s day-to-day. That’s all I’ve got for you,” said Keefe. “I don’t know what’s going to happen from here.”
Calgary was also down its usual starter Jacob Markstrom, but got a strong performance from David Rittich.
Hutchinson couldn’t quite match it. He recovered reasonably well after surrendering a shaky opening goal that squeaked through his pads and left a tap-in for Sam Bennett. But he didn’t get any run support from teammates who were frequently mishandling pucks and unable to mount much of a sustained offensive push before the third period.
Where the potential concern lies with Andersen is it may be a sign his body breaking down after an extremely busy start to the condensed season. No NHL goaltender has seen more than his 957 minutes 30 seconds of game action and only Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen has faced more than the 454 shots sent his way.
That’s in large part due to the 10 straight starts Andersen made after backup Jack Campbell went down with a leg injury last month — a string broken last Wednesday when Hutchinson spotted him for a 7-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators.
“It has been a very busy schedule for Fred and he’s been dealing with some things as well that just warranted that he needed to get some time off here, too,” Keefe said then.
This is not how the organization imagined things playing out in the crease, not after bringing Hutchinson back in October to fill the No. 4 slot on the depth chart. Remember that he saw his first tenure with the team ostensibly end when they dealt for Campbell during a game he started and lost at Madison Square Garden in February 2020.
The goal for this season was to work Campbell more regularly into a rotation with Andersen and that plan appeared prudent with two solid performances until he was injured Jan. 24 at Calgary. The Leafs had already lost No. 3 Aaron Dell on waivers to New Jersey by that point and so Hutchinson found himself back in a position to play.
While there’s a major silver lining to be found in their 14-4-2 record, the Leafs are weathering a storm right now. Joe Thornton (upper body), Zach Hyman (foot) and Wayne Simmonds (broken wrist) all missed Monday’s game, as did top shutdown defenceman Jake Muzzin (broken bone in his face).
The team can afford to be patient with Andersen’s injury situation because of its strong start and Campbell’s anticipated return to the lineup in the days ahead. But Toronto won’t want to have to face the more meaningful games to come without him.
It has now won just seven of the 21 games where Hutchinson has been the goalie of record dating back to the 2018-19 season, and Campbell’s strong play as a Maple Leaf has to be weighed against the fact he’s still appeared in fewer than 70 NHL games throughout his entire career.
Andersen is the only proven entity here and he should be handled with care.
In his absence, his teammates get a pass for their low-energy outing against a much more desperate Flames outfit. But it was also a reminder of the security blanket he typically provides them.
“I thought our team played like one that was expecting things to go bad and not go our way today rather than making it go our way,” said Keefe. “I didn’t like our mindset in that sense.”