The Ottawa Senators were by far the biggest surprise in the National Hockey League last season. Depending on who you ask, the team’s success was a combination of a few things:
- great coaching by first year head coach and Jack Adams Award nominee, Paul MacLean, who joined the team after spending six seasons and winning one Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings;
- veteran players Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek combined for 203 points in the regular season and led a core group of young talent into the playoffs;
- Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson had a breakout year on the blueline and gave fans a glimpse of what’s to come for many years.
And then, there was Craig Anderson.
In his second year with the team, Anderson earned 63 starts, going 33-22-6 with a 2.84 goals against average and .914 save percentage. Those numbers are among the best in the NHL.
Impressive for a goalie who was suiting up for a team that was expected to finish dead last in the Eastern conference even before the water froze over at Scotiabank Place.
Anderson showed a more technical style of play this past season, using more of his 6-foot-2-inch frame to block pucks in tight, while keeping his hands and stick active on pucks shot on net from the perimeter. He is entering what is considered to be ‘prime years’ for a goaltender. At just 31, he is physically and mentally mature to play several more seasons at 60 plus games in the Nation’s capital.
To add more depth in goal, the Senators acquired Ben Bishop from the St. Louis Blue on February 26, 2012 for a second-round draft pick in 2013. Bishop finds himself in a good situation at age 25 to learn from a veteran like Anderson about how to be a regular player in the NHL. Bishop spent the majority of his professional career in the American Hockey League, playing four years with the St. Louis Blues affiliate Peoria Rivermen. He is ready for full-time duty as an NHL back-up and push Anderson for playing time in Ottawa.
With Anderson and Bishop, the Senators have a legitimate one-two punch heading into 2013 and if both goaltenders enter the season the way they finished, both can share the workload and put the Senators in another position to make the playoffs.
But, where does this leave highly touted prospect Robin Lehner?
Whether he likes it or not, in Binghamton – for now.
Don’t forget, Lehner is only 21-years old. Sure, he won the Calder Cup and the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010-11. He then followed it up with a sub-par performance in 2011-12, going 13-22-2-1, 3.26 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.
Lehner is not the only goaltender to have earned such honours.
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price won the Calder Cup and Jack A. Butterfield trophy with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007.
Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth won the Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears back to back, in 2009 and 2010, and the Jack A. Butterfield trophy in 2009.
Both are now in the NHL full time at age 24.
The lesson for Lehner is more about the mental approach to goaltending. The most difficult part of the game is being consistent. So much of the game revolves around the goaltender that they cannot afford to have too many bad nights. Spending time in the minors, more than anything, is about finding that consistent level of play and being able to perform at that level night in and night out during the course of a season. Most goaltenders have the technical skills required to play at the highest level, but they may not necessarily have the mental maturity to go through the ups and downs.
No matter how much he thinks he is physically ready for the NHL, he still needs to be an every day player in the AHL. Not once in a while during the regular season. Not just a playoff performer. For Lehner, he has to be an every day, every night player.
This leaves the Senators with only one thing to do with Lehner: be patient. He has two years left on his entry-level contract. The message should be clear – be the number one goaltender in Binghamton. Any opportunities that come from performing consistently well for the B-Sens should be considered a bonus.
For the first time in the club’s history, the Senators do not have a problem with their depth in goal.
If you look at the organization’s history of goaltenders, the list is full of good goalies, but not great goalies. For the longest time, the majority of those very names were considered part of the team’s problems, whether it was their inability to make it far in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the reason for their inability to even make the playoffs.
As they continue to grow as a team, it will be important for them to be just as patient with their goaltenders as they are with the rest of their young forwards and defenceman.
These days, the glass – or in this case, the crease – is half-full for the Ottawa Senators and all they have to do is be patient.