The condensed 2020-21 season was always going to be a grind for goaltenders. The league mandated that at least one spot on the taxi squad be allocated to a goaltender to avoid having emergency backups of non-NHL quality take the net. Whether all taxi squad goaltenders are of NHL quality is a different issue concerning depth and development for each team and goaltender. On the other hand, the taxi squad situation also essentially limits the number of games a taxi goaltender might play this season. If things are going well for an NHL team, they won’t need a third goaltender and they will practice but not play any games. They might get some playing time if they get shuffled back and forth to the minor leagues specifically for this reason. The other end of this spectrum seems to be the current situation of the Ottawa Senators.
With Matt Murray and Marcus Högberg on the sidelines, Joey Daccord managed to get some playing time this season. Unfortunately, in the game after battling the Toronto Maple Leafs for his first NHL win, he injured something on a play that had him moving from left to right. He needed a bit of help to skate off the ice, which is never a good sign. In came Filip Gustavsson, who you might call Ottawa’s fourth-string goaltender, to close out the game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Gustavsson played quite well, stopping all eight shots he faced in emergency relief. This included a breakaway attempt from Bo Horvat shortly after Josh Norris tied it for the Senators. It was a momentum-building moment that went the way of the Senators thanks to Gustavsson. He kept them in the game through the third period and overtime, playing 19:53 overall. It’s less than a full period, but there were some promising moments. With Daccord likely done for the season, Högberg still needing a conditioning stint, and Murray still week-to-week — all according to general manager Pierre Dorion who spoke with TSN 1200 on the radio March 19 — there’s a chance that Gustavsson makes the first start of his NHL career on Monday against the Calgary Flames.
The grind for Ottawa and their netminders doesn’t end there, however. A fifth goaltender entered the scene when they picked up Anton Forsberg off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on March 17. Forsberg is practicing with the team and is likely to get a game in with the Belleville Senators before potentially getting the start for Ottawa against the Flames. Coach D.J. Smith didn’t reveal plans for their goaltenders during a recent media availability, but there’s a sense that unless Forsberg has a disastrous game with Belleville, he will likely get the start on Monday.
Forsberg has 42 career starts across five seasons in the NHL, including 30 with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017-18. He has yet to play in an NHL game this season — his most recent start in the NHL was March 7, 2020. In the time between that game and now, Forsberg has worn a few different jerseys as he has practiced with three Canadian teams and the Carolina Hurricanes to help fill holes in goaltending depth.
Forsberg is a seventh-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets from the 2011 Draft. Goalies are often picked later in the draft, but it’s already an accomplishment to have started as many NHL games as he has as a late-round pick. He now has the chance to prove himself again with the Senators.
One of the things that’s been keeping the Senators and fans going through this rebuild are the great stories of players, whose careers in the NHL might have been over or hit a wall, making a push to battle back and achieve big moments. We’ve seen it with Bobby Ryan and Daccord recently. For some reason, Ottawa provides a place and an atmosphere that allows these players to flourish. Forsberg isn’t going to pull an Andrew Hammond of 2015, but there’s reason to believe that a player with this determination will fit in well on a team that prides themselves on a similar work ethic, even if it is only for the rest of the season.
Is it Worth Making a Deal?
The Senators have a ton of cap space (around $21 million). However, considering the season and quarantine constraints, it’s not worth diving into the trade market for a goaltender before the deadline. Unless Dorion has lost faith in the future of Ottawa’s goaltending and wants to find more stability on the market, he’s more than likely not shopping around for a goaltender this time. The Senators know they are not battling for a playoff spot this season, so the acquisition (unless it’s for a multi-year contract) would only play around 18 games if acquired now from an American team. They would only play six games for the Senators if acquired at the April 12 deadline. The only other option is the one Dorion has already made a move on. If other Canadian teams waive another goaltender, you might consider picking them up.
At this point, there’s no reason to believe that the long-term plan has changed. Murray will get a chance at a full 82-game season with the team while Högberg, Daccord, and Gustavsson, continue to develop and battle for the backup spot. With Högberg potentially returning in early April, he may get to suit up for a decent share of games for Ottawa down the stretch if Murray’s situation doesn’t improve. With the organization’s goaltending scenario looking more like a starting pitching rotation in Major League Baseball, fans are witnessing the difficult work of the depths of a rebuild. On the bright side, Ottawa’s fans get to support and get up close and personal with the goaltending depth of the organization and the battles of these young goaltenders.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.