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The Goaltending Rollercoaster
OTTAWA, CANADA - JANUARY 26: Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stretches in front of his net prior to a game against the Calgary Flames at Canadian Tire Centre on January 26, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
OTTAWA, CANADA – JANUARY 26: Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stretches in front of his net prior to a game against the Calgary Flames at Canadian Tire Centre on January 26, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Note: the following goaltending piece was written by @StefanWolejszo for ‘The 6th Sens’. If you’re not already, give him a follow on Twitter and leave some feedback in the comment thread. 

Without further ado. 

Things change quickly in the NHL.

When the last NHL lockout ended four years ago the Ottawa Senators were able to roll out Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop, and Robin Lehner, and had what appeared to be an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position. Fastforward to this season and we find the team plucking a goalie from the scrap heap to avoid being forced to start one of their developing goalies after Anderson’s leave of absence.

To say Ottawa’s goaltending situation has been a rollercoaster over the past few years would be an understatement.

With the welcome news this week that Anderson is preparing for a return, and the team signalling that they would like to extend Mike Condon’s contract, the crease is once again becoming crowded and difficult decisions will have to be made.

The goal of this piece is to provide some context to the current goaltending situation by looking at the recent past in order to better understand where the team is heading.

How we got here

Four years ago, during the lockout shortened season, the Ottawa Senators were faced with the positive variety of goaltending controversy. On Feb 21st 2013, Anderson was carted off the ice on a stretcher after this play:

The team had traded a 2013 3rd round draft pick (which was used to pick Tommy Vannelli) to the St. Louis Blues for Ben Bishop one year earlier as a stop gap. The idea was that Bishop could play a small number of games as Anderson’s backup which would allow Lehner to get a ton of games under his belt as the starter for Binghamton. Anderson’s injury forced the team to recall Lehner on an emergency basis. The negative of Anderson being injured was also a positive because giving Lehner a few NHL starts would likely be an important part of his development.

A funny thing happened during that lockout season. The Senators were struck by a slew of injuries all at once, including Eric Karlsson getting his Achilles slices by serial accidental-injury-inflictor Matt Cooke, Jason Spezza aggravating his bad back, and Jared Cowen injuring his hip while being forced to play with the B-Sens during the lockout.

When the injury bug hit it looked like the Senators were dead in the water. In fact, they probably should have been. But during that “pesky Sens” phase, which was marked by games featuring 58 minutes of terrible hockey followed by thrilling last minute goals, the Senators’ goaltenders all rose to the occasion.

Goaltender Games Played Save % in 2013
Craig Anderson 24 .941
Ben Bishop 13 .922
Robin Lehner 12 .936

The goaltending situation turned into a log jam, and rumors emerged that Lehner was not happy with the idea of being sent back down to Binghamton. Although Lehner is sometimes accused of being a hot head it is hard to blame him considering the solid numbers he was posting in the big league. He certainly did seem ready to be in The Show on a regular basis.

At the 2013 trade deadline, Bryan Murray opted to nip any impending goaltending controversy in the bud by shipping Bishop to Tampa Bay for Cory Conacher and a 4th round pick that was used to select Tobias Lindberg. This trade still generates a great deal of angst among some Ottawa Senators fans, which is fair considering the fact that Ben Bishop was a solid goaltender. However, it is hard to image that the Senators would have invested the shade under $6 MM per season to sign him that Tampa paid out. The Senators are sometimes accused of not having a game plan, but in this instance they had an identified starter in Anderson and an heir apparent in Lehner, and moving the temporary backup out when Lehner was ready was simply a case of sticking to the larger plan.

The 2013-14 Senators ended up being a disaster. After losing Daniel Alfredsson to Detroit on Free Agent Grab Bag Day the previous summer, and with rumors swirling about the Senators being in a budget crunch, the team crashed and did not make the playoffs. Although Anderson (.911) and Lehner (.913) posted very similar numbers, questions about Lehner started to swirl when he piled up a series of sub-par performances after Anderson was injured.

At this point a new wrinkle was added. Although Lehner and Anderson were on par in terms of save percentage in 2013-14, Anderson had more wins while Lehner scored higher on some underlying metrics that were developed in the analytics community. This led to an analytics versus eye test debate where a portion of the fan base viewed Anderson as the starter and wanted the team to give him an extension, and another part of the fan base believed that it was time to cut bait with Anderson and turn the net over to Lehner, who they believed was the better of the two goalies. Age was also a factor and there was some concern that Anderson’s play would start to deteriorate over the length of any extension the team gave him.

In the summer of 2014 the Senators opted to keep their goaltending intact and signed both Anderson and Lehner to extensions. The idea appeared to be that Anderson would keep the net until a point where Lehner asserted himself through his play as the clear number one goaltender.

To hamburgle or not to hamburgle, that is the question

The Senators got off to a bad start in 2014-15, and uninspired play in the early part of the season cost world class Montreal Canadiens troll Paul MacLean his job. Despite the change in coaches, and improved play from the team after Dave Cameron took over, the Senators seemed out of contention for a playoff spot by early 2015. This led to more than a few fans to call for an all-out tank in order to get into a better position in a very strong draft the following summer.

Anderson was clearly the better of the goaltending tandem during the 2014-15 season, posting a .921 save% and a record that slightly tilted to the win side. For his part Lehner struggled to a .905 save% and had a losing record. After Anderson and Lehner were both injured the club called up Andrew Hammond, who most fans associated with somehow giving up three goals in an AHL game before the anthem was even finished. Tank talk grew even louder and dominated Sens Twitter.

Hammond made his first career start against the Canadiens on 18 Feb 2015 and ended up stopping 42 shots to pick up a win. This was the start of one of the most improbable hot streaks in professional sports, as Hammond posted a .941 save% while going 20-1-2 down the stretch drive to lead the Senators into a playoff spot. Some fans correctly point out that his numbers fell down to Earth before the streak was over, but at the time fans were generally happy while Hammond chiselled his name into team folklore. He will always be the Hamburglar just as Curtis Lazar will always be the guy who eats things he probably shouldn’t.

Although most of us knew deep down inside that the Hammond run was catching lightening in a bottle and that investing in Hammond moving forward was a pretty big risk. Realists pointed out that there was no way the team was going to let him walk after he so effectively worked his way into the hearts of so many fans. The hope was that the team would offer a contract that would not be too damaging moving forward. I doubt anyone was really all that surprised when the team signed him to a 3 year extension worth $4.05 MM in total. The dollar figure seemed quite reasonable, in a “it could have been worse” kind of way, but more than a few eyebrows were raised among fans over the inclusion of the 3rd year in that deal.

The summer of 2015 also featured other moves as the Senators tried to re-establish a goaltending prospect pipeline. Chris Driedger, who was a third round pick for the Senators in 2012, was signed to an entry level contract in April while Boston University prospect Matt O’Connor signed the following month. Developing goaltenders does not always pan out, but it looked as though the team would be in good shape if one of the two turned into an NHL player.

The ripple effect of signing Hammond in May of 2015 was that one of Anderson or Lehner was going to be moved out. The team opted to keep their proven starter, and a package of Lehner and David Legwand’s crappy contract was parlayed into a 1st round pick that was used to select Colin White. Replacing Lehner, a goaltender the club had spent considerable time and effort developing, with Hammond, who many believed was a flash in the pan, led to a fair bit of frustration among a part of the fan base.

While Colin White is an excellent prospect, and freeing up cash from a bad contract is great, complaints about the team’s overall plan grew louder. This seemed very different from 2013, when it was possible to see a larger picture even if one did not agree with the wisdom of moving Bishop out. With Anderson not getting any younger, and Hammond unlikely to be a legitimate long term replacement, exactly what was the plan?

The 2015-16 season was terrible and appeared to confirm all of the concerns fans had about the goaltending situation. Just to be clear from the outset, it would be patently unfair to say the Anderson/Hammond package was responsible for the Senators missing the playoffs in 2015-16. There were many issues within the team that came into play that season. Having said this, aside from early season heroics from Anderson that allowed them to stay in the playoff for a little while, the team’s goaltenders certainly did not provide a big enough bandage for all that ailed the team during Dave Cameron’s final season behind the bench. Anderson finished with a mediocre .916 save% and continued to win more than he lost while Hammond rocked a .914 save% and lost more than he won.

Where we are at

I don’t think I am going to surprise anyone in saying that the goaltending situation this season has been a bit off of the beaten path. Anderson was off to a good enough start, but then tragedy hit as his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Before the situation progressed to the point in the treatment where he had to take an extended leave of absence he put in a series of performances that were so good, so brave, and so emotionally charged, that they put a tear in this grizzled old hockey fan’s eye.

For his part, since the end of The Streak Hammond has (unsurprisingly) shown that he is not the answer to the question of who will take up the reigns once Anderson is done. In fact, some bad blood developed after his apparent dispute with the team over whether he should be sent to Binghamton for a conditioning stint after his most recent injury. Hammond refused to be sent down so the team waived him and sent him anyway. It is fair to say that his future with the team is cloudy at best, and those of us who still love him for The Streak can only hope that he is not Jimmy O’Briened.

With Anderson on leave and Hammond’s injuries the team was faced with a dilemma. Ideally one of either Driedger or O’Connor would have been called up to take up the slack, but either the team had no faith in them or felt those prospects needed more development time. Instead of looking inward for options, the team opted to give up at 5th round pick in 2017 to bring in Mike Condon, who had earned a bit of Twitter fame for going on a short hot streak for Montreal that led to an overenthusiastic claim from some media members.

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While Condon’s stellar play has kept the Senators in the playoff picture, the goaltending picture moving forward is a bit of a mess right now. Bringing Condon in and asking him to play every game without a break has produced good results in terms of the standings this season, but it also led to fair questions about whether the Senators even have an actual goaltending pipeline at this point. We all get that the team is in win now mode, and that developing prospects for an undetermined point in the future may not be a big consideration at the moment. But the fact that the team believes Condon is more likely to produce a win after more than two dozen consecutive starts, including back to backs, than any of the goalies developing in the system is a searing indictment of the state of the team’s once vaunted goaltending pipeline.

Moving forward

With the team signalling that Condon will likely be extended the team is facing a situation where they either move Hammond (a tough sell at his price) or face a sunk cost where they put a goalie on a one-way deal in the press box. Under normal circumstances trading Anderson, who would be much easier to move, would be an option. Considering the nature of all that the Anderson family has experienced I think it is very safe to say that will not be on the table unless he requests it in order to be closer to their preferred medical care for his wife while she is in what is known at the “maintenance” phase.

If and when Condon is extended the Senators will have three goaltenders on one-way contracts.  In order to get a good picture of the impact of a Condon extension it is a good idea to take a look at the contract values in real dollars (i.e. not cap hits) of the main goalies in Ottawa right now:

Goaltender 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19
Craig Anderson $4,750,000 $3,100,000 UFA
Andrew Hammond $1,350,000 $1,500,000 UFA
Mike Condon $575,000 ? ?

Anderson’s contract was structured to fall off in the last year when he would presumably be sitting more as the team transitions to the heir apparent, which was Lehner at the time of the deal. This strategy is apparent when looking at how the dollar figures for Anderson fall off as his contract progresses while Lehner’s contract is backloaded with increasing dollar figures.

Moving Lehner out in favor of Hammond could have represented a significant cash savings for the team as Hammond’s $1.5MM is less than half of Lehner $3.15 MM payday next season. This type of saving gives the team some flexibility to make deals or sign players in other positions and should have been a windfall for the Senators.

The problem is that signing Condon to an extension that will likely be in the $1.2-$1.5 MM range will eat away most of that saving unless they can move Hammond out. The best case scenario would probably be for the Senators to move Hammond out in exchange for a depth player with similar term and who that the Senators could use in the bottom part of their lineup, but it is unclear whether there would be any takers for that type of offer.

An added problem is that the organizational goaltending picture becomes exceptionally clouded after next season. Ideally the club will be nurturing a backup goalie along next season with 30 or so starts to season him to take the reins in 2018-19, but at this point I cannot see how that is going to happen. If we ride an Anderson/Condon tandem next year then one of them will probably have the net the year after. That leaves the team in a position where we are hoping Condon’s current excellence is not a temporary state of affairs or extended Anderson despite him being in the wrong half of his 30s.

Conclusion

Solid goaltending is one of those odd things where it is easy to sometimes take it for granted, but once it is gone you realize that you are cooked without it. I was born and raised in Winnipeg and my second team is the Jets, and I can tell you all about how a lack of good goaltending means hitting the golf courses early each spring.

Fans who have followed the Senators for a long while sometimes point to the lack of a solid top end goaltender as being the team’s Achilles heel when they were legitimate Cup contenders. Bringing in Hasek was supposed to fix that but we all know how that worked out. Some fans were upset when Bryan Murray brought in Anderson and gave him a long enough look to kill off the team’s chances at a high end draft pick that year, but he was looking at a bigger picture where the team would go nowhere fast without a legitimate number one goalie.

The team had that number one goaltender with Anderson between the pipes, and they started to work toward developing future goalies so that they would not be hobbled by goaltending in the future. For a while it looked like the present and future goaltending was solidly in place. But then Lehner hit an extended rough patch and the team moved on without a great backup plan in place.

Of the five goaltenders in the main part of the system, only Anderson and Condon can be reasonably viewed as legitimate options for the NHL club. Hammond may come around again, but his good game to stinker ratio has been out of whack since the end of his great run. Maybe O’Connor and/or Driedger will put it all together next season or the one after, but considering the team did not give them any games to give Condon a much-needed rest I find it hard to believe even the team is high on that possibility.

That leave the team with two decent goaltending options going forward which, granted, is two more than some teams have. The problem is there will be a point where we can no longer depend on Anderson being a rock for the team, and that moment may be coming sooner than we would like given the status of our current goaltending pipeline.

Extending Condon will help shore up the goaltending, and it is possible that he will turn into a bona fide starter the team can depend on for a few years. He is a late bloomer, kind of like Bishop was, and sometimes players like that put it together late in their careers.

The odds are though that Condon is more of a solid backup type that is great to have in a supporting role but may not be the guy to propel the team forward to the next level. If it works out that way Condon will still be a great player to have on board.

The thing is though that the team needs to start working on developing that pipeline again to avoid riding on a wing and a prayer later on.