The Senators might have even flirted with playoff contention, had their goaltending been better.
And yet few saw this change coming when it did -- goaltender coach Pierre Groulx losing his job in the first week of April, with a full month left in the schedule.
On what was expected to be a quiet off-day for the Senators Tuesday, the club announced that Groulx was being re-assigned to scouting and development duties while Zac Bierk, formerly with the Arizona Coyotes organization, takes over as the new goalie coach.
Pierre Dorion was blunt in his assessment of Ottawa’s goaltending this season -- and by extension Groulx, who had been in this role since the start of the 2016-17 season. It’s his second stint with the club. Groulx’s ties with the organization go way back -- he was one Jacques Martin’s video coach.
“Unfortunately, a number of our goaltending performances this season have been underwhelming,” said Dorion, in a statement. “I think very highly of Pierre Groulx, he’s as dedicated and tireless a worker as anyone in the organization, but we recently reached a point where we thought a fresh outlook could help return some stability to our crease.”
Interestingly, in Arizona, Bierk was a developmental goalie coach, working alongside the father of Senators goalie Joey Daccord -- namely, Brian Daccord, special assistant to the Coyotes GM and director of goaltending operations. Bierk’s more prominent link to Ottawa -- he worked with Senators head coach D.J. Smith in the OHL.
Clearly the struggles of Murray are front and centre here. Dorion traded for Murray on Oct. 7, giving up prospect Jon Gruden and a second-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins — the Senators instantly signed Murray to a four-year, $25-million contract. A lot of eggs in one goalie basket.
When Murray faltered -- 7-12-0-1 with a 3.84 goals-against and .880 save percentage, the pressure built. Murray’s backup, Marcus Hogberg, also struggled with Ottawa, got injured and has bounced back with a couple of outstanding AHL starts while doing a conditioning stint with Belleville (2-0-0, 1.51 goals-against average and .950 save percentage).
In Groulx’s defence, many of the other goaltenders in the Senators' stable have performed rather well. Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson and even waiver-wire pickup Anton Forsberg have had their shining moments since Murray got injured in mid-March.
Belleville Senators goalie coach Justin Peters has also worked with Daccord and Gustavsson in recent weeks.
Another factor working against Groulx -- he didn’t have the protection of being one of Smith’s hires. Other than development coaches along the lines of a former player like Shean Donovan, Groulx stood on an island as the one Senators assistant coach Smith inherited when Smith became head coach prior to the 2019-20 season.
By hiring Bierk now, the club appeared to make a move they were going to do by season’s end, anyway. Bierk is more than a little familiar with Smith, having been his goalie coach with the OHL's Oshawa Generals in 2015, the year the Gens won the Memorial Cup with Smith as head coach.
“Every goalie he’s had has gotten better,” Smith said. “He played in net, played in the NHL. And that’s something I was looking for -- someone that's been in that mental spot. Stood in the net and knows what it’s like to lose his game and get it back.
“There’s a lot more mental aspect to goaltending today than there ever has been. With the pressures that go with it.”
Bierk was already on the ice Wednesday morning. And no -- he didn’t travel here from Arizona. Bierk runs a goalie school in Toronto and thus was able to escape a lengthy quarantine.
Sometimes athletes have a say in who coaches them. Smith made it clear that Murray and Groulx did not connect.
“Pierre Groulx is a tireless worker, gave everything to the organization,” Smith said. “He was a team-first guy. Sometimes different guys are for different goalies. The same thing for coaches of a team. This isn’t on him, but we’ve got to try our best to get Murray and Hogberg going.”
Smith said the timing was connected to Murray and Hogberg getting healthy. Murray, who hasn't played since a 7-1 loss to Edmonton March 10, is back practicing. Hogberg, whose last NHL appearance was Feb. 18, is starting tonight at home against the Oilers.
“Those are our guys,” Smith said, of Murray and Hogberg, both 26. “They were our two guys at the start of the year and we feel they are going to be able to get some starts here down the stretch, with Forsberg. We want to get some camaraderie and get ‘em going. So we can start the year next year up and running and not have to go trial by fire.
“From the outside it might not look like it but Matt Murray is a major priority for us. Getting his game to where we know it can be is our No. 1 priority at this point.”
It would be one thing if Murray’s disastrous start was the only goaltending issue. After all, he was coming to Ottawa off a poor season in Pittsburgh. But Hogberg also fell apart (2-5-0, 4.34 and .859%). Last season, Hogberg was excellent in relief of Craig Anderson. Hogberg appeared in 24 games, had a 5-8 record, a 3.12 goals-against and .904 save percentage.
Smith was asked to assess the change in Hogberg’s play this season.
“I think when Hoggie has really been good, he’s calm in net,” Smith said. “Pucks hit him. And I think that’s the same for every goalie. You look at Carey Price, when he's on he’s not very active. Pucks just hit him and look like they’re never going to go in. Same with Hoggie, when he’s not playing great, it seems like he’s overplaying, overthinking. He looks almost wild in net.”
Heaven forbid that a goalie should dare be active, in the way that Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur actually moved to stop shots. But this is modern goaltending. (For a feature on that subject, check out Ken Dryden’s story in The Atlantic).
“It happens to every goalie in the league," Smith said of Hogberg trying too hard to stop pucks. “It’s not him. But when they get their game back, they look calm and look like they're not going to get beat.”
Brannstrom will return
While Ottawa’s goaltending tandem looks to get back on track, so too does young defenceman Erik Brannstrom.
Once considered the jewel of the trade that delivered Mark Stone to Las Vegas, Brannstrom has been in and out of the lineup and all over the map from the taxi squad to AHL Belleville and back.
It’s as though he is stuck in limbo, having last played in the AHL on March 26 and with the NHL Senators March 10 (that 7-1 loss to Edmonton that was Murray’s last start).
The best explanation for Brannstrom’s idleness I can think of is that the NHL team wanted him for insurance in case of injury, but didn’t actually start him because they are giving starts to Braydon Coburn and Josh Brown in hopes of enticing a trade partner for those veteran D-men.
Because the Senators didn’t skate prior to Wednesday's early start time (5 p.m. ET), their lines and pairings were not clear, but Smith assures us Brannstrom is playing soon, with a back-to-back with Edmonton on tap.
“He could be in tonight, we haven’t made that final decision,” Smith said Wednesday morning. “He will be in one of these two games and then as we get past the deadline here, he will play lots of games and lots of minutes down the stretch.
“And obviously you have to play well. We’re not just going to give games out to particularly anyone but we think he can do it and if he goes in and plays well he will continue to play.”
While Brannstrom has had some trouble defending at the NHL level, he is still 21 and needs to play. Whether that is in the NHL or AHL matters less than playing enough hockey to develop.
Combined, Brannstrom has played just 18 games this season -- 14 in the NHL and 4 in the AHL. Before the North American leagues started up for 2020-21, Brannstrom also played 10 games last fall with the Langnau Tigers of the Swiss-A League.