Dave Feschuk: Maple Leafs can afford to go slow with Frederik Andersen
|Toronto Star 08 Jan 2019 at 18:22|
When you consider Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcockâ€™s opinions on the workload of the most important Maple Leaf â€” and thatâ€™d be goaltender Frederik Andersen â€” itâ€™s worth remembering Babcockâ€™s opinions on other matters better left to educated experts.
Even though Babcock is the $50 million (U.S.) supercoach of the worldâ€™s most profitable hockey operation â€” and even though heâ€™s done admirable work as an advocate for mental-health initiatives â€” there are moments when he remains an unapologetic adherent to various beliefs born out of hockeyâ€™s dark ages.
When it comes to return-to-play protocols for injured Maple Leafs, heâ€™s fond of derisively referring to the clubâ€™s sports-science staff as â€śthe science project.â€ť 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 â€śget-out-of-jail-free cardâ€ť from the medical folks. Whatâ€™s vital, career-sustaining injury rehab to players â€” and what amounts to a smart protection of assets for the franchise â€” is, to the coach, akin to prison. Or maybe thatâ€™s the way Babcock wants his athletes to view it. The quicker youâ€™re sprung the better, never mind the meddlesome, evidence-based opinions of the nerds in the lab coats.
And if that aspect of Babcockâ€™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.
â€śWell, I think when a player says heâ€™s OK to play and keeps playing, heâ€™s OK to play,â€ť 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 Babcockâ€™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 â€śThe Mule,â€ť Franzen is said to have suffered at least four concussions during his playing days. Now, at age 39, he has spoken of a â€śvery darkâ€ť 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.
â€śItâ€™s embarrassing,â€ť he told the newspaper. â€śI can speak to one person and the next day Iâ€™ve forgotten his or her name.â€ť
Franzenâ€™s story is a reminder that every player is, in the end, a metaphorical mule â€” 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 Andersenâ€™s current situation isnâ€™t remotely comparable to Franzenâ€™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 Thursdayâ€™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 Andersenâ€™s long-term presence in the crease, after all, a team thatâ€™s on pace for the best regular-season point total in franchise history would be thrown into chaos. Making sure heâ€™s healthy and sharp for the playoffs ought to be the franchiseâ€™s top priority, just as last seasonâ€™s disappointment â€” 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 â€” ought to be a cautionary tale.
But when it was suggested to Babcock this week that Andersenâ€™s injury might turn out to be a blessing in disguise â€” before he went down, after all, the Maple Leafsâ€™ No. 1 was on pace for a workload nearly as onerous as that of his previous two years â€” Babcock offered another in a line of his philistine insights.
â€śI donâ€™t believe that anyoneâ€™s tired at playoff time. I just donâ€™t,â€ť 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, itâ€™s not true. And neither is the idea that todayâ€™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 coachâ€™s counter-argument.
â€śItâ€™s great if you can do it. Youâ€™ve got to make the playoffs, though. In a fantasy world, when youâ€™re in control of everything, thatâ€™s wonderful. But most of us are crawling to get in the playoffs,â€ť he said.
The Leafs, to be clear, arenâ€™t crawling to get in the playoffs; theyâ€™re shoo-ins. And even if beating out Boston for second place in the Atlantic is important, itâ€™s a minor point when stacked against concerns about Andersenâ€™s health. Still, if Andersen plays less than 60 games this year it wonâ€™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 â€śget-out-of-jail-free card,â€ť nobody but Babcock would be perturbed if Andersen stayed in the clink until heâ€™s beyond rejuvenated for the stretch run.