To describe it charitably, the Ottawa Senators’ goaltending situation is a dumpster fire. If it continues to spew black smoke at the start of next season and the team again stumbles out of the gates, heads will roll in the nation’s capital. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion must extinguish the fire and have next year’s lineup between the pipes settled by the end of this season or risk jeopardizing the success of their rebuild.
Goaltending Key to Senators Start in 2022-23
The Senators found themselves out of playoff contention in the last two seasons before their first 20 games were played. In 2020-21 they were an appalling 5-14-1 after 20 games. This season, with Dorion having declared the five-year rebuild over and the team widely expected to transition to respectability, they posted an even worse 4-15-1. Sympathetic fans pointed to several explanations for their poor starts, but there is no denying that crummy goaltending was a major factor.
The Problems in the Ottawa Senators’ Goal
Goaltending provides a team with confidence and in the last two years, Ottawa’s provided very little. Much of that has been because of starting goaltender Matt Murray’s injuries. Because of them, he played just 27 games last season registering a save-percentage (SV%) of just .893 and a goals-against-average (GAA) of 3.38.
Those numbers meant he couldn’t be considered a starting goalie by NHL standards. Many wondered what had become of the young goaltender who back-stopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.
Murray’s health problems continued again this year and he has managed to play just 20 games so far, notching a SV% of .906 and a GAA of 3.05. Given these numbers, it’s hard to argue that he is a bad goaltender. It’s just that with injuries, illness and inconsistent play he hasn’t been the horse the team could ride in net.
Because of his injuries he hasn’t been available consistently. While he showed flashes of his former self in early February, he hasn’t been reliable either, having lost six straight starts before he was injured again last Saturday. Over his last five games he averaged a SV% of just .854 and a GAA of 4.2.
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His struggles early in the season got him placed on waivers by November and when he cleared, he was shipped down to the Senators’ farm team in Belleville. That no team picked him up off waivers speaks to the fact that given his performance, his injuries and a contract with two years remaining at an average-annual-value (AAV) of $6.25 million, there’s no market in the NHL for his services. At least not now.
Senators Need to Re-Sign Anton Forsberg
Murray’s troubles have led many fans to wonder why Anton Forsberg, a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) this year with a cap hit of $900,000 has been regarded as Murray’s understudy. Since being claimed off waivers last year, he has played in 34 games notching a 14-14-0 record.
This year, he’s registered a SV% of .920 and a GAA of 2.77. Those numbers say he is a better netminder than Murray and considering he’s been available to play reliably, many are saying his contract should be renewed.
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It’s hard to argue that there are many pending goalie UFAs, especially at back-up, but who would represent better value than Forsberg? Assuming on contract renewal he doubled his AAV to a figure in the range of $1.5 million, he compares to the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jack Campbell who is 31-years old, has a SV% of .914 and a GAA of 2.65. Campbell earns $1.65 million but has faltered lately, just when the Maple Leafs need him the most.
If Murray becomes what the Senators thought they bought several years ago, all of this means Forsberg is the ideal back-up. If Murray can’t bounce back, then by default, Forsberg probably becomes favoured as the starting goaltender.
No Good Options for Senators With Murray
Ottawa’s goaltending could be a plus if it weren’t for injuries and Murray’s inconsistent play. Mads Sogaard, along with Kevin Mandolese, who is currently with the Belleville Senators, are interesting prospects and draft pick Leevi Merilainen playing with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs is also turning heads (from “GARRIOCH: Matt Murray’s latest ailment leaves more questions in Senators’ net, The Ottawa Sun”, 07/03/2022).
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Even so, with none of them ready for the NHL, the current goaltending situation in Ottawa is untenable if it persists into next season. Without competitive goaltending to underpin a good start next year, the Senators are headed for a sixth straight season absent from the playoffs.
While at times Murray has shown glimpses of his former self, it’s hard to believe he’s over his health problems. Not only that, but it’s well-nigh impossible that he could be off-loaded to another team given his price tag.
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Neither Forsberg nor arguably, Filip Gustavsson, who has bounced back and forth between Belleville and Ottawa, are proven starting goaltenders. Even so, the 23-year old Gustavsson has at times shown the makings of one.
If Murray isn’t capable of regaining his form during the remainder of this season, then the Senators face the choice of either assigning him to the Belleville, or buying him out and being saddled with $6.25 million in dead money applied to their cap in each of the next two seasons.
Goaltending Clouds Ottawa Senators’ Outlook in 2022-23
Without top-notch goaltending, the success of the Senators’ much-vaunted rebuild over the last five years will be in jeopardy. Without the resurrection of Murray, or Gustavsson playing his way into the starting spot between the pipes, they will face continued problems in goal next year. That means one thing – the Senators will need to re-sign Forsberg.