Senators still looking to find franchise goalie in the draft

Craig-Anderson-looks-for-puck

Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Ottawa Senators must look at the career of Martin Brodeur in New Jersey with a mix of awe and envy.

In 1990, the Devils drafted Brodeur 20th overall out of St-Hyacinthe in the QMJHL, and from 1993 until 2014 they hardly gave a thought to their goaltending – beyond the question of, who plays the five or six games Marty doesn’t start?

In the case of the Senators, they don’t need to draft a Hall of Fame goaltender like Brodeur — though it would be stunning. They’d settle for drafting a starter, period. Despite numerous close calls in finding their franchise goaltender via the draft, the Senators have always leaned on goalies gleaned via trade or free agency. Historically, their statistical leaders have been castoffs from other teams: Craig Anderson, Patrick Lalime, Damian Rhodes, Ron Tugnutt.

Currently, the Senators’ goaltending arrangement consists of relying on Anderson to stand on his 37-year-old, bald, head.

After that? Mostly question marks.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Backup Mike Condon played well a couple of years ago, which resulted in a handsome three-year contract (summer of 2017) he is struggling to live up to. With a cushy early schedule and Anderson riding the hot hand, Condon was rather awful in just two appearances and was demoted to AHL Belleville, along with his $2.4-million cap hit. He may never live down that highlight of a shorthanded Derek Stepan goal from 140 feet away.

Condon yielded six (but got the win!) in his lone start for the B-Sens.

Taking his place, backing up Anderson, is journeyman AHL goalie Mike McKenna, 35, a southpaw from St. Louis. The combined age of Anderson and McKenna is 72, making them the NHL’s creakiest tandem.

Not exactly your goaltending duo of the future, nor even likely the near future, in McKenna’s case. In three appearances for Ottawa, McKenna has a goals-against of 5.97 and a save percentage of .857. In his lone start, McKenna was beaten 5-1 by the Florida Panthers on Sunday.

In a perfect world, Condon finds his game and gets back to Ottawa to support Anderson. First, he has to get healthy, as Condon is still battling a nagging lower-body injury. Longer term, the Senators revert to that familiar question of the ‘Next One,’ as far as their goaltender of the future. Anderson is signed through the 2019-20 season, with a cap hit of $4.75 million and a final-season salary of $4 million – a bargain if he can stay healthy.

Considering his age, his workload (13 games, an NHL-leading 475 shots) and the lack of support behind him, whether it’s the defensive play of his young teammates, or the struggling back up tenders, keeping Anderson healthy is vital if the rebuilding Senators are to remain competitive.

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In the system

There remain two young goalies in the system, both Swedes.

Filip Gustavsson, 20, came to Ottawa from Pittsburgh last February as part of the multi-team trade that delivered Derick Brassard to the Penguins. Gustavsson was brilliant for Sweden in the world junior championships (4-1, 1.81 goals-against) and played seven games for Belleville last season (2-4-0, 3.01 and .912).

Gustavsson started strongly this fall, but his play has since dipped. Overall, he is 2-5-0 with a 4.56 goals-against average and .872 save percentage.

Ottawa’s other prospect is Marcus Hogberg, who turns 24 on Nov. 25. Hogberg, who is six-foot-five and 217 pounds, split time between ECHL Brampton and AHL Belleville last season. With the B-Sens, he was 6-12-0 with a 3.27 goals-against and .899 save percentage.

This fall, Hogberg has been MIA. What was reported as a “little tweak” one month ago, has persisted to keep Hogberg out of action entirely. Hogberg was Ottawa’s third-round pick, 78th overall, in 2013.

Draft swings and misses

General managers know there is nothing less predictable than a goaltender’s projection. Even a home-grown blue-chipper like Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens goes through periods when he can’t stop anything.

Goalies get waived, traded, and occasionally rise from obscurity only to fade away again. The Senators found lightning in a bottle with Andrew ‘The Hamburglar’ Hammond in 2015 (he got an NHL contract and a lifetime of Big Macs out of it) and to a lesser extent with Condon in 2016-17.

While these flashes in the pan were born of desperation, the franchise has endured a challenging 26-year search for a goaltending saviour, by draft, by design or by fluke.

The Senators have yet to draft an enduring starter, and have made their best goaltender transactions via trade (or free agency in Tugnutt’s case).

No one expected that GM Bryan Murray’s late-season 2011 move to acquire a struggling Anderson from Colorado for goaltender Brian Elliott would result in eight years of starting goaltending for the franchise, the longest run in the club’s history, while likely saving Murray’s job at the time.

Before and after, have come a lot of swings and misses.

Along with Hogberg and Gustavsson, some of the other ‘goalie-of-the-future’ names include such where-are-they-now candidates as Chris Driedger and Matt O’Connor.

Drafted by Ottawa in the third-round, 76th overall, in 2012, Driedger was once highly regarded. He probably peaked in 2015-16 when he had a winning record in the AHL (18-15-4) with a goals-against of 2.83 and a save percentage of .912. His next season wasn’t as strong and Driedger has since kicked around in the AHL and ECHL.

Now 24, Driedger started this season with AHL Springfield of the Florida Panthers system and last week was “loaned” to the ECHL Manchester Monarchs. Driedger had decent numbers with Springfield (2-1-1, 3.19 and .906), but is 0-2 with Manchester with a 3.62 goals-against and .863 save percentage.

Driedger appeared in three NHL games for Ottawa.

Former Ottawa Senators goaltender Chris Driedger. (Gary Wiepert/AP)

O’Connor, 26, a highly anticipated free agent signing out of Boston University by the Senators in 2015, hasn’t played a full season since 2016-17 with the AHL Binghamton Senators (14-18-1, 3.23 and .895). He has kicked around in the ECHL the past couple of seasons and has appeared in just two games for the Wheeling Nailers.

O’Connor’s most recent outing was Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the pesky Greenville Swamp Rabbits. His lone NHL start was memorable. Then head coach Dave Cameron started O’Connor in the 2015-16 home opener, a loss to the Canadiens, a move that owner Eugene Melnyk famously second-guessed.

Over the years, the Senators have drafted goalies as high as 15th overall – Mathieu Chouinard in 1998 – as well as with mid-round and late-round flyer picks.

So enamoured were the early Senators of Chouinard, they drafted him twice. When they couldn’t come to terms with him in 1998, they picked him 45th overall when he went back into the draft in 2000. Chouinard played one NHL game – with the Los Angeles Kings in 2003-04.

Ottawa also liked Simon Lajeunesse (48th overall in 1999). He appeared in one game for the Senators and can lay claim to being perfect, other than the no-decision – nine saves made in a cameo appearance, zero goals allowed, and a lifetime save percentage of 1.000.

Other organizational hopefuls included Jeff Glass, Ray Emery and Robin Lehner — none of these drafted goalies lasted more than three-plus seasons.

The late Emery, who died in a drowning accident this fall, stepped up in 2006 when Dominik Hasek went down with injury, and was Ottawa’s starter in the 2007 Cup final against Anaheim.

Lehner — “he’s a star,” Murray used to boast, won a Calder Cup trophy with Binghamton, never quite found his rhythm with Ottawa, moved on to Buffalo and is off to a good start this season with the New York Islanders. He’s 27.

Meanwhile, the Senators head into an uncertain goaltending future, wondering when it’s their turn to hit a home run on a drafted goalie.

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