Ottawa Senators Hope that Goaltending Struggles are a thing of their Past

The Ottawa Senators have been home to some of the most dynamically talented forwards and have developed some tremendously solid defencemen over the years. On paper the Sens have boasted rosters that looked like a surefire lock for the Stanley Cup. However, other than their occasional playoff inconsistency, the Achilles’ heel of this organization located in the Canadian capital has been the last line of defense, goaltending.

Since their 1992 revival, the Senators have never really had a definite starting goaltender that has stuck with the organization. One of the more notable goalies to play in Ottawa was United States Hockey Hall of Fame member and two-time Stanley Cup champ, Tom Barrasso. Barrasso suited up for the Sens in a total of 13 games (7 regular season and 6 playoff matches) in 2000. Not saying much since Barrasso was 34 years old during his limited stint in Ottawa.

Between 2000 and the year leading up to the NHL Lockout, Patrick Lalime would the guy given the nod to fortify the net in Ottawa. And it seemed he was up for the daunting task, racking up 36 wins in the 2000-2001 NHL Regular Season. Just two seasons later Lalime recorded a career high 39 wins and was only two wins shy of the league leader, Martin Brodeur. Lalime lead the Senators within one victory of the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final berth, but a game seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Devils, derailed Ottawa’s hopes of ending a Canadian teams Stanley Cup drought. Despite their season ending on that note, the Sens would have to settle with the Presidents Trophy for earning the most points in the 2002-2003 regular season (113 points).

At the conclusion of the 2003-2004 season, the Sens decided to send Lalime to the St. Louis Blues in return for a mid-round draft pick. To replace him, the Senators signed Czech goaltending legend Dominick “The Dominator” Hasek to a one year deal, which carried over after the 2004-2005 NHL Lockout. With a season lost due to the labor disputes, Hasek was not getting any younger, however, he showed the league that he still had plenty enough left in the tank. The 43-year-old Hasek lead the Sens to a roaring start, nevertheless, during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Hasek suffered an injury while playing for the Czech Republic national team that would shelf him for the rest of the season.

Enter Ray Emery.

There must have been panic and outrage in Sens nation; it has to be unbearable to watch one of the most dominant goaltenders in NHL history go down with an injury at such a crucial time. Despite the adversity, Ray Emery withstood the heat brewing in Ottawa. Emery was able to help the Senators lock up the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sens finished just three points ahead in the standings of their divisional foe, the Buffalo Sabres.

Come playoff time, Emery and the Sens knocked off John Tortarella and his defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in only five games. However, the tables turned on Ottawa in the semi-finals when they met the offensively flashy Sabres. It was as close as a five game series could possibly be, with the Sens fending off the sweep and forcing a game five. Every game in the series was settled by only a one goal differential and three of Buffalo’s four wins came in overtime.

The second round exit stung; however, the Sens brought in Martin Gerber, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with the Carolina Hurricanes. Oddly enough, the Senators decided to give Gerber the number one spot in net. Gerber was stellar in Raleigh the season before, but he would be faced with a much similar situation. In 2005-2006 Gerber lost his starting job for the remainder of the playoffs with the Canes, and he rode the pine watching rookie goalie Cam Ward carry the Canes the rest of the way.

This time it was Emery that would undermine Gerber for the starting job. The two goalies battled for the starting job for about the first quarter season. The Sens decided to go with Emery for the rest of the way, and he would not disappoint. As for Martin Gerber, it seemed to be a beneficial for him to be the backup because prior to being demoted to back up, Gerber posted a 5-9-1 record, compared to after he posted a 10-0-2 record for the rest of the regular season.

Emery was stellar the rest of the regular season leading the Sens to the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and drawing comparisons to Philadelphia Flyers legend Ron Hextall, for his feistiness. Emery and the Sens would dominate the playoffs. In the quarterfinals they doused the Pittsburgh Penguins and young phenom Sidney Crosby’s cup hopes. They then bowled over the Devils in five games, and avenged their previous playoff exit with a five game series against Buffalo. Then Emery and the Sens cruised to their first ever Stanley Cup Final, where they were to face Anaheim Ducks and two of the leagues finest defencemen, Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermayer. The Sens were outmatched and it showed as they were downed by the Ducks in 5 short games.

The Sens gave Emery a three-year deal for his solid performance, and also showing that they were standing pat behind Emery being their starter. However, injuries, tardiness and absences from practices, altercations with teammates, and a mediocre performance landed Emery on waivers and lead to him becoming an unrestricted free agent only a year after leading the Sens to the finals and after resigning a 9.5 million dollar contract. It has to be one of the more recent and notable falls from glory in the NHL as Emery would have a stint in the KHL, Philadelphia, Anaheim the team that once ruined his cup hopes, and is currently playing for the Chicago Blackhawks with whom he managed to grab a win against the Sens at Scotiabank Place on March the 2nd.

Over the next few seasons the Sens would mainly rely on their 2003 ninth round draft choice Brian Elliot. Elliot was stupendous, but a 2008-2009 trade made for Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets gave the Sens a future project, with Leclaire once being a highly touted goaltender out of the QMJHL, and was drafted eight overall in 2001. Leclaire was awful in Ottawa, showing why he played less than 60 games over the course of two seasons, having a goals against average north of three and a save percentage south of .900.

During the 2010-2011 season the Sens swapped a struggling Brian Elliot for an also struggling Craig Anderson of the Colorado Avalanche with the mindset that both goalies may need a scenery change. For Anderson it worked and he currently bestows the starting position in Ottawa. Elliot on the other hand, still struggled in Denver after only 12 games. The Avs released him and he was signed by the St. Louis Blues this past off season, and Elliot was named to the All-Star Game hosted in Ottawa.

Craig Anderson Senators
Carig Anderson (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

This season has been Craig Anderson’s first full season with Ottawa. His goals against (2.85 through 56 games) is a bit higher then the Sens would like it to be, however, he has a winning record which has kept the Sens in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race. Anderson has recently been sidelined with an injury, so the Sens called up Robin Lehner.

Lehner was a second round draft pick for the Sens in 2009, he was selected with the pick obtained in the Pascal Leclaire trade. Lehner was born in Gothenburg, Sweden but registered his first professional season in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan playing for the Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. Lehner was only the second goalie taken in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, behind Mikko Koskinen who was taken by the New York Islanders just fifteen picks earlier; however, there were some scouts that believed Lehner was the best goaltender.

Lehner has spent most of his career thus far playing for the Binghamton Senators in the American Hockey League, and helped the baby Sens capture their first Calder Cup Championship last season. Lehner only 19 years of age took home the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for being the most valuable player throughout the duration of the playoffs. To add to Lehner’s resume on February 28th, he registered his first career NHL shutout, outdueling Tim Thomas and the defending Stanley Cup Champions the Boston Bruins by the score of 1-0. It was a 38 save effort for Lehner in one of those games that just goes to prove that a solid goalie can steal games.

Just days before Lehner’s first shutout, the Senators made a trade with St. Louis and aquired goaltender Ben Bishop. Lehner is no small guy, standing at nearly 6’4 and 220 pounds, but next to Bishop, Lehner looks tiny. Bishop is in fact the tallest goaltender in NHL history, at 6 foot 7 Bishop looks gigantic in front of the regulation size net which stands at four feet tall and six feet wide.

Bishop was a third round draft pick by the Blues in 2005. He enjoyed two successful seasons at the University of Maine and a lackluster junior year. Following his third season at Maine, Bishop decided to go the AHL route and became the franchise face of the Peoria Rivermen over the course of four full seasons there. At the AHL’s January All- Star Game, less than a month before the trade, Bishop received MVP honors. Many would assume St. Louis to be crazy to sell arguably the best goaltender in the AHL for a second round pick, but with Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliot, and 21-year-old Jake Allen, there was too much depth in net for the Blues. For Ottawa the move certainly supports the fact that back up Alex Auld will be out of the job next season, and this trade should also make for an interesting roster battle. With Anderson locked up until 2015, both Lehner and Bishop will be battling for the second spot on the roster.Bishop may have the most to prove out of Lehner and him, being Bishop will turn 25 in November, this will give Lehner a slight advantage since he is about four years younger than Bishop and can already match Bishop’s AHL experience.

In all, it will be baffling if the Sens can not groom at least one of these guys to become a full-time starting goalie. They both have potential to someday split the workload, but if one or both goalies pan out to full potential, the Senators may have the next Pekka Rinne in their hands, or even better, two of them.