OTTAWA — Craig Anderson has parlayed 11 appearances into a long-term commitment from the Ottawa Senators.
The Senators announced Monday they’d signed the 29-year-old goaltender to a US$12.75-million, four-year deal, barely more than a month after acquiring him from the Colorado Avalanche.
He’s played just 11 games so far in Ottawa, winning six of them, but the Senators apparently saw enough of Anderson to believe he’ll be the guy to help lead the rebuild of a team set to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
"We feel he’s brought stability," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said Monday. "Craig has stepped in and allowed our team to play hockey the way we think we have to play going forward and, with that secure building block, now we can address some other issues."
Anderson arrived in Ottawa on Feb. 18 in exchange for fellow netminder Brian Elliott after a rocky time in Colorado this season and quickly became a fan favourite since shutting out the rival Toronto Maple Leafs in his first appearance a night later.
"It’s just been a great spot here to come in and get the opportunity to show what I can do and the fans have been very welcoming and have made it very easy for me to make my decision to want to play here," said Anderson.
He’s watched while Curtis McElhinney started the last couple of games because of a minor lower-body injury but could return Tuesday night at Carolina when the Senators play the Hurricanes.
Anderson, a native of Park Ridge, Il., was set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, but wasn’t inclined to test the market this summer.
After making $2.125 million this year, he’s set to earn $2.75 million next year, followed by $3 million the following year and $3.5 million in the final two seasons of his new deal. He does not have a no-movement clause in the deal, however.
"For me, it’s not about the money, it’s about having a good fit and finding a place where I’m going to be happy, where players are treated with respect and the organization communicates with their players," he said. "And from Day 1, I’ve had great talks with the coaching staff, the goalie coach, the general manager, they’ve all gone out of their way to make me feel like I’m a part of the team. … You can’t put a price tag on that."
Anderson is in his eighth NHL season, but only his second as a bona fide No. 1 goaltender after previous stops with the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers before Colorado signed him to be their go-to guy for the 2009-10 season.
He posted a 38-25-7 record with a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage and was good last spring in the playoffs for a surprising young Avalanche team that bowed out in the first round to the San Jose Sharks.
Things didn’t go so well this year and he was just 13-15-3 with a 3.28 GAA and .897 save percentage as Colorado took a step backward.
Since joining the Senators, he’s gone 6-4-0 with a 2.11 GAA and .938 save percentage, although the two previous games he’s played have not gone well. He was pulled in a 6-4 loss at Buffalo and suffered a 5-1 defeat at home to Pittsburgh last Tuesday.
Still, Murray had no hesitation in deciding he’s the guy for the Senators after numerous failed attempts over the years to find a suitable No. 1 who wouldn’t crack playing in a Canadian market.
Pascal Leclaire was supposed to do that, too, but couldn’t stay healthy in the past two years and, currently out injured now, he’ll be allowed to walk away at season’s end.
Elliott couldn’t fit the bill, either. The fans and media in Ottawa have tried to anoint unproven 19-year-old rookie Robin Lehner as the answer to the team’s goaltending troubles, but he’s hardly played this season because of injuries and a constant shuffling back and forth from Ottawa and Binghamton of the American Hockey League and Murray said he thinks Lehner is still a few seasons away.
Instead, Murray felt Anderson was the best option rather than hoping a goalie would be available this summer through free agency.
"When I made the trade to acquire (Anderson) to start off with, he was a guy that, in real form, we had a chance I felt if we could get him here and talk to him, to sign," said Murray. "There were other goaltenders, but very few unrestricted this year.
"I’ve watched him play for a number of years in this league, so I know the real Craig Anderson. I know the guy in Florida, I know the guy in Colorado and I just wanted to see him fit in this room, what he can bring to a younger guy, give us confidence and stability and I believe he’s done that," Murray continued.
"The other thing I tried to find out is when you get to a market like here where we’ve got some very tough customers to deal with, that he can handle that and that he’d want to be here."
Anderson’s performance and the play of the team in general in recent weeks — the Senators are 10-6-1 in their past 17 games — prompted owner Eugene Melnyk to tell a Toronto radio station last week that he felt the team could rebuild much quicker than initially thought.
The Senators, who were 30th overall only a few weeks ago, have since surpassed the Edmonton Oilers and the Avalanche and closed the gap on the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers ahead of them, lessening their chances of landing one of the top picks in the NHL draft lottery, but making for a more positive vibe around Ottawa.
"I think Andy’s come in and played great for us," Senators centre Jason Spezza said. "We feel that we can be a good club next year again, that’s obviously the goal, but just to get a guy like him locked up and not letting him go to free agency is good for the franchise.
"He’s stopping pucks, he’s communicating well with the defence, he plays the puck better than we’ve probably ever had and he relieves the pressure on our defence a little bit that way. He’s done a lot of good things."
Murray’s own future with the Senators is still unclear. His contract is up after the season and he said Monday he still has no indication of whether or not he’ll be back, although the fact he’s been allowed to initiate so many moves indicates he figures to remain on at least in an advisory role.
"What I had was an opportunity to make some changes because of the results we were having, which weren’t very good," Murray said. "All I’m trying to do here is make sure that this organization is put in a position where it’s much more competitive going forward."
Before the trade deadline, Murray moved veterans Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Alex Kovalev and Chris Campoli in addition to Elliott in order to clear salary and stockpile draft picks.
However, he re-signed veteran defenceman Chris Phillips, 33, to a three-year deal worth more than $9 million and Monday’s signing of Anderson ties up another $3.1875 million in annual salary cap space.
"I had a couple of priorities when I started this: To trade a number of players, to acquire a veteran defenceman to make sure we had stability there and we re-signed Chris Phillips and that achieved that goal," Murray said. "The most important, and I should never say this, but we all know that if you don’t have some stability in goal, you don’t have a chance in this league on a regular basis.
"I really felt that … getting this kind of person and putting him in this kind of position would clear the deck for other jobs that still have to be done."
Ottawa may also get Milan Michalek back Tuesday. The injured left-winger is recovering faster than expected after fracturing his foot Feb. 26 and missing the past 10 games. He practised Monday and made the trip with the team and could play Tuesday or Thursday at New York against the Rangers.