Perhaps the most overused term in hockey today is “goalie controversy.” We’ve heard it a ton during recent seasons around the National Hockey League, from the highly publicized and on-going debate in Vancouver over who is number one between Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, to more quiet rumblings, including in Ottawa with the Senators situation. When did having a lot of talent and depth in goal become a negative thing? The fact is that in today’s game, the idea every team must have a workhorse goaltender, similar to that of the workhorse NFL running back, is becoming extinct. There will always be the Henrik Lundqvists, Pekka Rinnes and Martin Brodeurs in hockey, as football has its’ Adrian Petersons and Marshawn Lynchs, players who seem to perform better the more they play. However only five of the top ten goalies in games played last year were in the playoffs and that says something. More and more it’s become a tandem job that requires depth, and teams that have it will be better off moving forward.
You can count the Ottawa Senators among those teams in an ideal net-minding situation at this point. They have their clear starter in Craig Anderson and quality backing him up and in the American Hockey League. With this seasons compact schedule most teams will be averaging a game every other day, often playing three in four nights, and depth at all positions will be tested. Coaches know the importance of every point, but also the importance of rest for their players whenever possible, especially their goaltenders. With a race to the finish line right from the start no team can afford a dip in play. For this reason it is the teams without a huge drop off from their number one goalie to their backup that will benefit most, an obvious statement yes, but it bears saying. Rolling four lines is nice, but rolling two goalies is essential. Senators Head Coach Paul MacLean knows his team has that advantage. Craig Anderson is red hot to start the season, among the league leaders in every category and gives the team a chance to win every game. Backup Ben Bishop has played only one game thus far and while it wasn’t great, it was only one game. He proved last year stepping in for Anderson he can carry the load for a time when needed. Finally, the team’s future in net is Robin Lehner, the young star carrying the load for the Sens AHL Affiliate in Binghamton. A role he has begun to fill quite nicely, prompting some in Ottawa to ask when he may take an NHL roster spot full time.
Craig Anderon/Ben Bishop:Now
Number one Craig Anderson has been outstanding for the Ottawa Senators since his arrival in the Nation’s Capital late in the 2010-2011 season. He was acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for goaltender Brian Elliot, an acquisition that went without a whole lot of fan fair around the league as both Ottawa and Colorado were well out of the playoff race. Anderson was nearing the end of his two year deal he had signed with the Avs and it was unsure exactly where his game was at. He was less than two seasons removed from his career best year in 09/10, posting a 38-25-7 record with a .914 save percentage and 2.64 goals against average, and leading the Avalanche to an unexpected playoff appearance. Sound familiar? He was even more impressive in the postseason as he and his teammates battled the top seeded San Jose Sharks for six hard fought games, largely on the strength of his .933 SV% and 2.62 GAA, before finally being knocked out. However Anderson started slowly the following season and consequently so did the team prompting a change in net. He eventually lost the starting job to backup Peter Budaj and was 13-15-3 with a GAA nearing 4.00 when he was traded to Ottawa. The Sens, who were in the midst of a very poor season themselves, decided to give him the games down the stretch and see how he performed. The move was exactly what the Illinois native needed and he and a young Sens squad finished strong. The veteran journeyman was great going 11-5-1 down the stretch and showed Ottawa General Manager Bryan Murray all he needed to see. Murray took no chances in letting Anderson get to free agency, signing him to a four-year extension on March 21st, 2011 for an average cap hit of less than $3.2 Million, a dollar amount that looks very favourable for the team now. Anderson rewarded the organization for their confidence last season appearing in 63 games with a .914 SV% and 2.84 GAA, and leading his team to another great playoff showing where he was outstanding, posting a .933 SV% and 2.00GAA in their seven game series loss against the New York Rangers.
Backup goaltender Ben Bishop was acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Blues organization in late February after an injury to Craig Anderson. At 6’7 Bishop is a massive goaltender even by today’s standards, but moves well, and although he had limited NHL action with the Blues, his numbers in the American Hockey League with the Peoria Rivermen were strong. Murray felt he had proven himself to be a quality goalie at that level and was ready for more NHL opportunity. Bishop filled the starting spot nicely going 3-3-2 with a .909 SV% and 2.48 GAA in 10 appearances down the stretch, helping keep the team in the playoff hunt.
As stated earlier Craig Anderson is looking strong early on, starting out the year at 6-2-2 with a .950 SV% and 1.49 GAA. You would expect him to start somewhere around three quarters of the games, provided the team continues to play well and doesn’t find it-self in an early point deficit. This will leave the other quarter to Ben Bishop with perhaps the odd game from Lehner mixed in. Assuming, which we all know is risky, that Ottawa gets continued great play from Anderson it will be these other games that decide where the Sens finish. Despite Bishop’s less than stellar 5 goals against on 30 shots in in his lone appearance, a 5-1 loss to a very good Tampa Bay Lightning team, the team is comfortable with him. His showing last year and experience edge over Robin Lehner make him the right choice. The team must continue to make progress after last year’s success and for that to happen the goaltending will need to be top end, something Craig Anderson is focused on.
Robin Lehner: Later
Since Ottawa drafted goalie Robin Lehner 46th overall in the Second Round of the 2009 National Hockey League Draft, Sens fans have been in love with the possibilities. At 6’4 224lbs the native of Gothenberg, Sweden is a big goaltender. He moves well with excellent quickness and plays an aggressive style that has been compared to that of New York Rangers star Henrik Lundquist. Since bringing his game to North America full-time in 2009-2010, he has continued to improve at each level. That includes a dominant postseason performance in 2011 for the Binghamton Senators of the AHL that saw him win the Jack Butterfield Award as MVP of the playoffs en route to a Calder Cup title. Lehner entered training camp this year with eyes on stealing a full-time spot in Ottawa and made the team out of camp. The team carried three goaltenders to start the year, a rarity, but a show of the strength they believe they have at the position. This certainly created a stir around Ottawa as fans were eager to see who would take the number two spot, and if they could push Anderson for the number one job. Lehner actually backed up Craig Anderson in the first two games of the year before the team decided his progress would be better served starting in the AHL and reassigned him to Binghamton. While he didn’t stick with the big club right now, he is certainly knocking on the door of the NHL and a number one job.
Again to reiterate, depth in goal should rarely be classified as an issue for a team but rather an asset that every organization would love to have, provided it’s structured properly. The only trouble with the Canucks’ situation is that both goaltenders are clear number ones who are making number one money. That is tough for a team to do and keep quality elsewhere. The Sens have it right with a clear number one, a good backup and the talented “future” net-minder growing his game in the AHL. The big question for Ottawa and their fans this year may now become what could they get in return were they to deal one. The value of the three certainly varies, with Lehner likely being the most attractive to other teams based on his age and contract. This is not to suggest the Sens should or even would consider moving him, but building a Stanley Cup contender requires bold moves, and it is something that other teams will be asking about if Ottawa looks to be playoff bound. With the Sens already missing their top player down the middle, Jason Spezza, for an extended period of time, a drop in offensive production seems inevitable, and it will have GM Bryan Murray exploring all options. However with a stockpile of young talent at numerous other positions you can expect Murray to look everywhere else before messing with a good thing in goal.