Sabres Benefiting From Seemingly Ageless Anderson

The dubious distinction of being the NHL’s oldest goaltender hasn’t slowed Craig Anderson one bit. Despite turning 41 this past May, he just keeps on going and opened his 20th season with a 36-save performance on Oct. 13 as the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Ottawa Senators, 4-1.

It’s been remarkable journey for Anderson, who has found new life since coming to Buffalo. It’s been great for the Sabres as well, as the young team has benefited immensely from his presence and leadership.

Anderson’s Best Appeared to Be Behind Him

After Linus Ullmark departed in free agency in the summer of 2021, the Sabres had no viable options to replace him and were forced into a contingency plan. When Anderson signed a one-year deal worth $750,000 that July, it was met with little fanfare. At 40 years old, his prospects for success were not great and his glory days seemed to be a thing of the past.

He was once one of the NHL’s most durable goaltenders, leading the league in both goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%) in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. However, it was the 2016-17 season that was undoubtedly his finest hour. After voluntarily stepping away due to his wife being diagnosed with cancer, he returned and led the underdog Senators on a stunning run to the Eastern Conference Final, where they lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He also posted some of the best numbers of his career and was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy for his resiliency.

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Unfortunately for Anderson, that looked to be the apex, as his numbers declined sharply in each of the next three seasons and the Senators opted not to retain him after the 2019-20 season. He received little interest as a free agent and the only offer he received was a professional tryout with the Washington Capitals, who eventually signed him to a one-year deal. After six appearances with them, he became a free agent once again and joined the Sabres.

The Sabres likely didn’t have high hopes for their new goaltender or see him as anything more than a placeholder for their young prospects who would buy them additional time to develop. After a disastrous season in which the team lost 18 consecutive games to tie an NHL record, the Sabres had little prospect for success in 2021-22 and there wasn’t much to suggest that the new season would be any better. But, to the surprise of just about everyone, it was.

Renaissance in Buffalo?

The Sabres enjoyed a vastly improved 2021-22 campaign thanks to vastly improved performances from a number of players. And while the comebacks of Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo received the most attention, Anderson had quite the revival as well. Despite his encouraging start being derailed by a neck injury that cost him over half the season, he returned and continued to play strong, helping the team finish the season on a 16-9-3 tear.

He had a number of standout moments along the way. In the Heritage Classic against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 13 he made 34 saves to propel the Sabres to a 5-2 victory and their first-ever outdoor victory. This came just three days after he made history by collecting his 300th career victory, becoming just the sixth American goaltender in NHL history to do so.

His numbers, while not exactly stellar, were very strong when considering his age, finishing at 17-12-2 with a 3.12 GAA and .897 SV%. His GAA was also the lowest it had been since the 2016-17 season, and though he gave the Sabres the chance to win every time he was in goal, it was the leadership and guidance he provided that was truly the hallmark of his series.

Craig Anderson Buffalo Sabres
Craig Anderson’s success with the Sabres has turned numerous heads (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers).

Anderson probably feels old enough as it is, and the fact that he was originally drafted before some of his teammates were even born doesn’t help the matter. Okposo garnered the nickname “Dad” last season, but it’s Anderson who’s the father of the team in the most literal sense, and he embraced the role, stating he wanted to have a positive impact on the team’s numerous younger players (from “Craig Anderson closing in on 300th win after ‘tough start’ to ‘remarkable’ career”, The Buffalo News, 3/5/2022).

Despite his successes, whether or not the Sabres would re-sign him after the season was a matter of speculation, as he turned 41 in May. Nevertheless, the team did indeed bring him back for another year, this time for $1.5 million, a fitting reward for his contributions.

Is 2022-23 Anderson’s Swan Song?

Though he continues to defy Father Time, how much the Oak Park, Illinois, native has left in him is a valid question that Buffalo will be looking to answer this year. He’s struggled mightily with injuries in recent seasons and his ability to stay healthy has come into question.

Related: Sabres Having Early Struggles From Top Forwards

Fortunately for the Sabres, adding Eric Comrie over the summer gives them options. Though it appears that the team will stick with the tandem approach like last season, he will more than likely emerge as the number one at some point down the line. Anderson should still appear semi-regularly, but they would be making a mistake in trying to give him the same amount of minutes.

Nevertheless, the age-less wonder has been invaluable to the Sabres and he turned out to be one of the team’s best free agent signings in recent memory. He stabilized the home crease at KeyBank Center and in the process saved the likes of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi from being rushed along. He will turn 42 after this season and it’s not likely that he will be brought back again, but Sabres fans should be very grateful for what he’s done for the team.

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