It’s no secret that goaltending has been one of the biggest issues this season for the Ottawa Senators. Matt Murray has had a historically bad season, from a rough start to the 2021-22 campaign that eventually led to an American Hockey League (AHL) demotion. Yet it still can get worse, as he is likely out for the rest of the season with an upper-body injury. It’s clear that despite the hope that he brought to the franchise in 2020, Murray is not the answer to the Senators’ goaltending situation.
However, moving him will not be an easy task. He still has two years remaining on his four-year, $25 million contract that he signed upon arriving in Ottawa, and with his history of injuries and inconsistency, few teams would be willing to take him and his $6.25 million cap hit. There’s also a 10-team no-trade clause on his deal, which makes any sort of potential move even trickier.
But there may be one option that makes sense for both teams involved. There has been some trade chatter about the New York Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov, whose starting job was stolen by Ilya Sorokin this season. He’s on the older side at 33, but he has a history of consistency despite playing behind some weak teams. If Ottawa can convince the Islanders to part with him, the team could start addressing other pressing issues rather than worrying about inconsistent goaltending.
Murray’s Fractured Relationship with the Senators
This season has been tough on the Senators, who came into it expecting to improve on their strong finish last season but have failed to make any meaningful progress. It’s been especially rough for Murray, who looked even worse than last season. After defending him throughout 2020-21, the Senators had enough, so they placed him on waivers, seemingly hoping someone would take their issue off their hands. No team did, however, and Murray reported to the Belleville Senators at the end of November.
While getting sent down happens all the time, even for some veterans, the demotion left a bitter taste in Murray’s mouth, mainly because of the lack of communication regarding the move. According to Ian Mendes, who interviewed the goalie after he joined Belleville, neither general manager Pierre Dorion, coach D.J. Smith, nor goalie coach Zac Bierk told Murray anything apart from the move being a management demotion. It left him confused and frustrated with the decision, especially after he was all but crowned the team’s goalie for the foreseeable future.
Murray returned about a month later after starting twice for Belleville, and he seemed like a new goalie. He won four of the seven games in January, including a shutout against the Buffalo Sabres, and two of the losses were in overtime. But then things started falling off the rails again: he lost three of his next four games, went down with an injury, and when he returned, lost three more times. That included a five-goal thrashing on just 22 shots from the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 1, and an eight-goal blowout against the Arizona Coyotes on March 5.
There’s no point in beating around the bush – Murray has been bad as of late, and it’s been even more noticeable with Anton Forsberg playing well over the same stretch. But what is Murray supposed to do? The team’s defence has provided little support for its goalie, with almost every defender sporting a negative expected plus/minus rating except Thomas Chabot, who now is also out with an injury. Even most of the forwards haven’t been much help in the defensive end. Yet the criticisms still come back to Murray, and added to everything else that has happened, likely has him feeling a bit tired of being in Ottawa.
Varlamov is a Huge Upgrade in Goal
Neither the Senators nor the Islanders have been very good this season. They both sit near the bottom of their divisions, have roughly the same number of wins (22 for Ottawa compared to the Islanders’ 26), and are just one goal apart in total goals scored, placing them 28th and 27th league-wide, respectively. They will certainly both be sellers at the deadline.
Yet when comparing their goalie’s numbers, there’s a significant difference. Murray has just a .906 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.05 goals-against average (GAA) with five wins and 12 losses, which ranks 36th among all goalies who have played at least 10 games. Varlamov, on the other hand, sits with a 0.912 SV% and a 2.85 GAA. It’s not much higher, but he has a very similar record of four wins and 12 losses, implying that he’s keeping his team in more games.
Diving deeper into advanced stats, Varlamov has outperformed Murray in every area. He has a lower expected goals-against (albeit just barely), a higher scoring chance SV% at .880, and a higher high-danger scoring chance SV% at .870. Those numbers don’t look great, but Murray sits several points back in both categories (.861 and .813, respectively), while the league’s best goalie this season, Igor Shesterkin, has a .868 high-danger SV%. With the Senators giving up plenty of scoring opportunities, adding Varlamov would give them a fighting chance in most games.
One could argue that the Islanders are getting more help from their defence, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Granted, Adam Pelech has been incredible, providing both offence and defence while he’s on the ice, but the rest of the team is comparable to the Senators’ abysmal blueline. Artem Zub, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Nick Holden provide about the same support as Zdeno Chara, Noah Dobson, and Scott Mayfield.
Adding Varlamov Won’t Be Easy
Like Murray, Varlamov also sports a no-move clause; however, he has a 16-team no-trade list, which gives him a lot of power over where he goes, and he’s already turned down a move going to the Edmonton Oilers. Now, that doesn’t mean he won’t want to come to Ottawa; the Oilers have been especially hard on their goaltending tandem this season, with Mikko Koskinen having to field questions after being thrown under the bus by his former coach Dave Tippett. Granted, the Senators haven’t been much nicer to Murray, but at least Smith hasn’t publicly shamed him.
However, there may be some concern with Varlamov’s chances of coming to Canada. As Elliotte Friedman reported back in July ahead of the 2022 Draft, “One GM said Thursday that he’s hearing more and more from players that they prefer not to play in Canada…mentioning taxes, social media and tighter pandemic restrictions.” While restrictions are being lifted, the negative perception may still be hanging around.
Finally, even if Varlamov is available, nothing has been officially confirmed mainly because Islanders’ GM Lou Lamoriello carries with him a terrifying reputation. “Teams are petrified of admitting they’re talking to the Islanders,” said Friedman in his 32 Thoughts column. He runs an incredibly tight ship, which helped the New Jersey Devils win three Stanley Cups and turned the Islanders into a playoff team, but does not tolerate dissension. It will be impossible to find out whether they will be making any trades until it’s officially announced.
Predicting a Possible Deal
Making any sort of prediction as to what will happen on March 21 is nearly impossible. The NHL has already seen some massive inconsistencies before deadline day, with Brandon Hagel costing the Lightning two first-round picks and two prospects, while Claude Giroux cost the Florida Panthers a single prospect, a first-round pick in two or three years, and a third-round pick. Yet it makes sense that Murray and Varlamov could be flipped for each other; Murray has worse numbers and is currently injured, but Varlamov has a higher price tag. New York could even get the Senators to part with one of their third-round picks, and it still would be a fair deal.
No matter what happens, the Senators need to find a way to sort out their goaltending. Murray isn’t happy with the team and will likely continue to underperform until the relationship with management is mended, or he’s moved, and until then, the Senators will continue to struggle to climb out of the league’s basement.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.