What a curious thing this Freddie Andersen decision is.
The Toronto Maple Leafs slipped out of rebuild mode in a big way with the deal on Monday – and not because they gave up two picks in the top 60 in the next two drafts. They also committed with term and dollars (five years and $25-million) to a core piece from outside the organization who turns 27 years old before the season starts.
And they did it with a goalie.
The Leafs have been wrong on goalies a lot. Past regimes committed to Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala and Jonathan Bernier before they had played 120 regular-season games, and all those deals ended badly.
Raycroft was in the Italian league within four years of the Leafs buying him out in 2008. Toskala struggled through two dozen games in Finland before burning his equipment in a drunken fit and never playing hockey again.
Bernier – well, he's set to become one of the league's most expensive bench-door openers if they can't find a team to take him at half his contract.
They had pedigrees, of a sort. A Calder Trophy. A great record with a good team. A first-round pick from a recent Stanley Cup champ! With goalies, general managers often just don't know. They say they do – they hope they do – but they don't. Most in the game don't. There are so many guys that look like world beaters for 60 games and then can't stop anything the next 60. And the mystery falloff is usually attributed to psychological mumbo-jumbo.
The Leafs have done an enormous amount of due diligence on Frederik Andersen, the big Dane who at one point was the heaviest goalie in the game at 250-plus pounds. General manager Lou Lamoriello and company have been looking at him – and basically every goalie who might have been potentially available – ever since it was clear Bernier was well off the rails early on last season.
Mike Babcock isn't an easy coach for a lot of guys to play for, but he can be murderous on a goalie that can't stop the puck. That was the Bernier he saw in key moments of games last year.
"Get me a goalie," was likely barked at management once or twice after games.
The Leafs have become a more modern organization the past two years, one with a wealth of tools to evaluate all kinds of players, including goalies. There have been rumours for months they were chasing down various avenues to analyze goalies in new and promising ways, and we can safely assume they found something they liked and believed in on Andersen given they've committed to him as their No. 1 goalie until 2021.
Whatever they've found, the traditional statistics don't really show it. Andersen has a .918 save percentage and – typically more important – a .926 save percentage at even strength, which is almost exactly where former Leaf James Reimer has sat the last three years. Andersen's stats scan as good but not great, with huge error bars given his limited experience.
And Reimer, an unrestricted free agent, wouldn't cost Toronto the two picks. He wouldn't cost $25-million over five years either.
Behind closed doors, however, NHL teams are starting to advance past these old standby stats. Some are employing huge resources and staff with a lot of letters after their names to crack the code on seemingly uncrackable questions like "what data projects who becomes a great goalie?"
One of the things the Leafs were believed to be looking into was finding a netminder who was a good fit in Babcock's defensive system. Someone who could stop the kind of shots that his teams give up – that sort of minutiae. (After all, this is the rare franchise that knows the style it will be playing for quite some time.)
Presumably, Andersen was near the top of that list, at least among the goalies likely to be available between now and next summer's expansion draft, when the NHL's new Las Vegas team will likely have its pick of a few good young goalies.
Andersen also has some indirect ties to the Leafs organization through goalie coach Steve Briere, who is a proponent of Lyle Mast's head trajectory technique, which has helped several goalies in recent years, including Devan Dubnyk, Reimer and Andersen. Connect the dots and there are some connections.
The Leafs, we'll note, aren't talking about any of this. The Lou Lockdown means precious little information leaks out about decisions or why they're being made. The affable GM said about as much in his various chats with media after the Andersen deal was made.
"I rather not get into what the circumstances were that went into it," Lamoriello said. "We are just delighted that we were able to combine the acquisition as well as the commitment that he's given to us and we've given to him."
Commitment is a good word for this. You can't hide a $5-million goaltender that can't perform. The league is littered with Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard and Kari Lehtonen types on bloated deals they can't live up to and that are essentially untradeable. No NHL asset is more toxic than a bad goalie asset because where will you shelter them? A bad goalie is a net negative, no matter what.
That's not to declare that's what Andersen is. He has a lot going for him – size, work ethic, personality and the fact he is a late bloomer, likely owing in part to the fact he's coming out of a country with no history of producing elite goaltenders. (With apologies to Peter Schmeichel.)
"He wants to be great," said one of Andersen's many friends in the goaltending world. "And looks for ways to get there."
What's curious about it all is the Leafs had time on their side here. They didn't need to unearth a high-end goaltender right now because they don't need to be very competitive next season, not with how young the roster is and not with how far they have to climb from 30th place. They're not winning the Stanley Cup in 2017. They could have made some lower level wagers on younger, cheaper goaltenders and waited to find "the one" when the flurry of movement comes at the position sometime in the next 12 months.
But the Leafs see something exceptional in Andersen, something that warranted what looks like – from the outside – a risky bet on a goalie without a long track record.
In the past, those bets haven't turned out well in Toronto.
Yet something does feel different this time around, about the organization and the work it puts into every decision. There's the appearance of a careful thoughtfulness working in service of a larger plan in place.
Now, we start to find out if there's anything to that. We begin to learn if management knows the path, not just to demolition, but also to putting this roster back together again in a way that will lead it sharply up the standings.
Whatever the outcome, this is one trade and one contract that will go a long way toward defining Brendan Shanahan's time in charge.
It's that big of a move. It's a goalie.