Dave Feschuk: Maple Leafs can afford to go slow with Frederik Andersen

Dave Feschuk: Maple Leafs can afford to go slow with Frederik Andersen
When you consider Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock’s opinions on the workload of the most important Maple Leaf — and that’d be goaltender Frederik Andersen — it’s worth remembering Babcock’s opinions on other matters better left to educated experts.

Even though Babcock is the $50 million (U.S.) supercoach of the world’s most profitable hockey operation — and even though he’s done admirable work as an advocate for mental-health initiatives — there are moments when he remains an unapologetic adherent to various beliefs born out of hockey’s dark ages.

When it comes to return-to-play protocols for injured Maple Leafs, he’s fond of derisively referring to the club’s sports-science staff as “the science project.” Speaking this week about the status of Zach Hyman, for instance, Babcock said the winger had proclaimed himself ready to play and was simply awaiting his “get-out-of-jail-free card” from the medical folks. What’s vital, career-sustaining injury rehab to players — and what amounts to a smart protection of assets for the franchise — is, to the coach, akin to prison. Or maybe that’s the way Babcock wants his athletes to view it. The quicker you’re sprung the better, never mind the meddlesome, evidence-based opinions of the nerds in the lab coats.

And if that aspect of Babcock’s persona seems harmless enough, remember that it was only a few years ago the coach insisted that if it were up to him, concussed players would be left to decide if they were fit to compete.

“Well, I think when a player says he’s OK to play and keeps playing, he’s OK to play,” Babcock said back in 2016 .

You look back at that quote, you think about how many wobbly athletes coaches like Babcock have encouraged to soldier on no matter the long-term consequences, and it makes you wonder. Consider the post-career nightmare currently being lived by of one of Babcock’s former players, ex-Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, who co-led the Detroit Red Wings with 13 playoff goals on their 2008 run to the Stanley Cup. Nicknamed “The Mule,” Franzen is said to have suffered at least four concussions during his playing days. Now, at age 39, he has spoken of a “very dark” existence in which he battles depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Last month he told a Swedish newspaper he struggles with his short-term memory, too.

“It’s embarrassing,” he told the newspaper. “I can speak to one person and the next day I’ve forgotten his or her name.”

Franzen’s story is a reminder that every player is, in the end, a metaphorical mule — ultimately rented, albeit at generally handsome prices, to provide a service that comes with costs. But even the strongest and hardiest of the Viking battlers is still just a human, hardly exempt from the reality of human frailty.

Thankfully for all involved Andersen’s current situation isn’t remotely comparable to Franzen’s sad fate. The goaltender has been out six games with a groin injury. The Maple Leafs have gone 3-3 during his absence. And whether the goaltender will be ready for Thursday’s match in New Jersey is unknown.

That the club would be wise to err on the side of caution, of course, seems obvious. Without Andersen’s long-term presence in the crease, after all, a team that’s on pace for the best regular-season point total in franchise history would be thrown into chaos. Making sure he’s healthy and sharp for the playoffs ought to be the franchise’s top priority, just as last season’s disappointment — when Andersen played in 66 games for the second straight season while facing more shots than any goaltender in the league, then noticeably faded in March and April — ought to be a cautionary tale.

But when it was suggested to Babcock this week that Andersen’s injury might turn out to be a blessing in disguise — before he went down, after all, the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 was on pace for a workload nearly as onerous as that of his previous two years — Babcock offered another in a line of his philistine insights.

“I don’t believe that anyone’s tired at playoff time. I just don’t,” Babcock told reporters.

Ah, the mythical notion that the magical pursuit of the Stanley Cup makes one impervious to fatigue and overuse injuries. If it were true, of course, nobody in the NHL would need to engage in preventative weight-training regimens or eat an organic kale salad or forego the nightclub for a night strapped into Normatech recovery leggings. Alas, it’s not true. And neither is the idea that today’s goaltenders ought to aspire to be Glenn Hall, the legend of a different era who once started an unfathomable 502 straight games.

Asked about the merits of pacing his No. 1, mind you, Babcock offered the coach’s counter-argument.

“It’s great if you can do it. You’ve got to make the playoffs, though. In a fantasy world, when you’re in control of everything, that’s wonderful. But most of us are crawling to get in the playoffs,” he said.

The Leafs, to be clear, aren’t crawling to get in the playoffs; they’re shoo-ins. And even if beating out Boston for second place in the Atlantic is important, it’s a minor point when stacked against concerns about Andersen’s health. Still, if Andersen plays less than 60 games this year it won’t be because Babcock wished it. The big Dane is only now on pace to play in 59 games, thanks to his groin injury.

Rather than pushing hard for a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” nobody but Babcock would be perturbed if Andersen stayed in the clink until he’s beyond rejuvenated for the stretch run.
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