St. John’s, N.L. – Michal Neuvirth’s bid to win the Maple Leafs’ backup goalie spot took a hit over the weekend when he suffered an undisclosed injury during training camp activities.
“He wasn’t feeling good body-wise [on Sunday], and we kept him off today,” head coach Mike Babcock said after the Leafs’ practices at Mile One Centre on Monday. “Obviously it’s not ideal for him. If he wants to battle for a job, he’s got to be in a position to do that. But he’s also got to be healthy.”
Neuvirth wasn’t part of either group practice on Monday, but did go out afterwards for some individual work with the Leafs’ training staff. The 31-year-old is at Leafs’ camp on a professional tryout, and was projected to be in the mix with Michael Hutchinson for the spot behind starter Frederik Andersen.
Babcock didn’t have an updated timeline on when Neuvirth might be ready to return, so the Leafs have retained Brandon Halverson, also playing on a PTO, for the time being.
Neuvirth has a long history of injuries, most recently battling a lower-body injury that limited him to just seven games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2018-19. His numbers were abysmal when he did play, finishing the shortened campaign with a 1-4-1 record with a .859 save percentage and a 4.27 goals-against average.
Despite his struggles, Neuvirth told the Czech Republic news outlet ISport in late July that he’d been talking to a few teams and had settled on a tryout with the Leafs.
Around the same time, Toronto announced its trade of last season’s primary backup Garret Sparks to the Vegas Golden Knights, leaving Neuvirth to challenge Hutchinson for the backup role.
Hutchinson is still relatively new to the Leafs, traded to the team from Florida in December last year. He suited up in five games for Toronto right after while both Andersen and Sparks were injured, posting a 2-3-0 record with a .914 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average.
After spending the end of the regular season with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, and amassing a 14-7-1 record with .910 save percentage and 2.70 goals-against average, Hutchinson backed up in several games for Andersen during the Leafs’ first-round playoff series against Boston.
“[He’s] big, a good man. Likes hockey. Good, good person,” Babcock said of Hutchinson. “Doesn’t get in the way. Makes his teammates better. Good guy.”
Whether he’s the right guy for the Leafs remains to be seen, but with Neuvirth’s status up in the air, Hutchinson could have the advantage in helping Andersen manage his workload this year.
Toronto’s starter has played 60 or more games in each of the past three seasons, but looking ahead, Andersen told The Athletic in an interview on Sunday that somewhere in the mid-50s would be an ideal number of starts.
“That could be the number,” Andersen confirmed on Monday. “I don’t want to guarantee anything, or lock us into anything. But if everything goes well and we’re able to play well, we could try and go a little bit lower than we have before.”
Babcock’s objective through the rest of camp will be determining the best backup to maximize Andersen’s rest, without sacrificing wins.
“That’s the great thing about managing his workload,” Babcock said. “Number one, you’ve got to be in a spot to manage it – in other words you have to be in a good spot in the standings. Number two, the guy you go to has to be able to play, and have a chance to win. That’s what we’re looking for. We thought Hutch did a good job for us last year. He’s here [again], and we brought in other guys for the same opportunity and we’re going to watch and see what happens.”