Craig Anderson is widely regarded as the greatest goalie in Senators’ history but the time to make way for the future is drawing near. As this weird NHL season closes out (eventually), everything seems to point toward Anderson moving permanently to Florida to retire and take in the early bird special at Del Boca Vista (the fictional Florida retirement complex from Seinfeld fame).
Anderson may still have some hockey left in him, but he definitely has a number of things working against him in Ottawa.
- He turns 39 this week (May 21st)
- His contract expires July 1st.
- He was relegated to backup status for long stretches this season.
- Statistically, he’s been a shadow of his former self the past 3 years (so has the team).
- The kids are pushing hard to get their NHL learner’s permits.
As the sun sets on Anderson’s fine career, who takes his place? Where will the Senator spotlight shine next in hockey’s most important position?
The smart money is on Marcus Hogberg, who will have a number of claims to the goaltending throne next season.
Hogberg enters the battle as a homegrown talent and, as such, will be given every chance to succeed. His success makes the scouting staff a success and that never hurts. “Hoggy” was drafted in the third round by the Senators way back in the 2013 NHL Draft. That was two rounds before they took Curtis Lazar, a much hyped first round bust who’s been gone now for three years. It’s also two picks before the Rangers chose Anthony Duclair, now Hogberg’s all-star teammate.
A club will always lean toward a player who pays his dues and Hogberg has done that and more. After being drafted, Hogberg stayed back in Sweden for the better part of four seasons, playing mainly at the elite level with Linkopings HC. During that time, other goalies would come and go in Ottawa, some of them being tagged (erroneously) as the club’s “goalie of the future.” Back home, Hogberg kept his head down, said nothing, kept grinding.
In 2017, he arrived in North America. Hogberg’s first full season as a pro here was a split between Belleville (AHL) and Brampton (ECHL). A year later (2018-19), he shone in Belleville, playing 39 games with a 2.32 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
Hogberg was settling in for yet another season in the minors when Sens’ goalie Anders Nilsson suffered a concussion on December 16th. Hogberg got his NHL call. Most believed he would sit on the bench most nights, backing up Anderson for a little while. But Nilsson never came back and Hogberg began to find his NHL footings. By the time February had arrived, Hogberg was the goaltender that Sens’ head coach D.J. Smith appeared to favour.
From February 1st onward, when the Sens had a choice between Hogberg and Anderson (Hogberg went home briefly after the passing of his father), it was the veteran Anderson who wore the ball cap on the bench in 10 out of the last 17 games. This may have been based in strategy; an act of preparation for the future, but Hogberg was, visually and statistically, the better goalie of the two.
In a media Zoom call, Hogberg’s name was the first one out of Smith’s mouth when asked about players who had taken a step forward this year. His goalie coach, Pierre Groulx, was equally complimentary in an interview with the Ottawa Sun.
“Part of Hogberg’s progress is his willingness to learn every day,” Groulx said. “He’d make a mistake on one goal or one play and then we’d look at it on video or work at on the ice and understand that, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do that. His understanding and willingness to get better allowed him to prove to himself he’s an NHL goalie.
Now he’ll have to outduel Nilsson, clearly the main rival in this battle next season. At 30, Nilsson is now the old man of the Sens’ goaltending core but that, by no means, automatically removes him from contention. Anderson was around the same age when he arrived from Denver to begin a decade-long beatdown of Ottawa’s record books. With only 161 games played, Nilsson may be a slightly older model but the mileage is low. The difference with Anderson: he had already been a number one, starting 71 games in Colorado the year before he was traded here.
While Nilsson has shown extended periods of excellence in Ottawa, he’s also had some shaky moments, serving as possible hints as to why a regular NHL starting job has eluded him. He definitely has questions to answer. How would Nilsson fare with the pressure of being a number one on a playoff-bound team (eventually), while also being chased by good, emerging young prospects who want his job? Is Nilsson the future or just temporary help? Has he fully recovered from his concussion?
Nilsson has always excited scouts who love big goalies. 6 foot 6 covers a lot of net. But his size advantage is fully neutered in this discussion, with Hogberg checking in at 6 foot 5.
Hogberg’s road has been a long one but, at 25, don’t make the mistake of calling him a late bloomer. His journey has actually been pretty standard. The goaltending position takes more time to develop and very few emerge early. Case in point: 45 NHL goalies played 30 games or more this season. Only three of them are under the age of 25 (Carter Hart, Mackenzie Blackwood and Alexandar Georgiev).
The choice between Nilsson and Hogberg won’t be easy. Neither has proven they can be number one goalies in the NHL so it’s reasonable to expect a time share to start the season and let them decide things with calibre of performance. But Hogberg will slowly take over as he did versus Anderson.
Let’s be honest. Nilsson has had ample NHL chances to catch someone’s eye. Since turning 25, he’s had stops in Edmonton, St. Louis, Buffalo and Vancouver and no one, obviously, ever thought, “Yes. That’s our guy. Our new number one.” It could still happen for him in Ottawa but, if you’re playing the odds, it probably won’t.
Meanwhile, Hogberg has only now turned 25 and checks in, right on time, already looking as good or better than Nilsson. Hogberg is a textbook developmental model with nothing but potential.
By Steve Warne