Last April, the Ottawa Senators closed out their 2021-22 regular season on a tear.
Yes, they missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year. But they had finished their final month with a 10-5-1 record and, in the fall of 2022, surely this talented, young group would be ready for lift off. Then when they added Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot that summer, that only served to galvanize the optimism around the club.
But despite all their best laid plans, the Senators didn’t get there. They improved a lot, but they will finish out of the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
The Senators’ brain trust will soon huddle and pour over everything and try and diagnose what went wrong. And it won’t take long to confirm what they already knew – one of several reasons for the failure to launch this year was goaltending. For most of this season, goaltending has been inconsistent or it’s been absent due to injury. Matt Murray was often both of those things, and after the Senators paid part of his salary so he’d go away and play for someone else, they thought those days were behind them.
But after Murray got the hook, Anton Forsberg and Cam Talbot both walked on stage and did their best Matt Murray impressions. Through no fault of their own, both spent far too much time on the injury list, and neither had what you’d call a standout season. Respectively, they stand 28th and 34th in save percentage.
So what, exactly, is the goaltending plan for this fall?
Talbot will be 36 this summer. His age, along with his injuries and inconsistency this season, make his reported $5 million contract demand fairly unreasonable. Forsberg, meanwhile, is paid like a backup goalie (2 more years at $2.75 million AAV) and has the resume of one. Now he’s trying to rally from badly injuring both knees on the same play. Can he become a full time NHL starter at age 30? Maybe. But remember, two years ago, Forsberg was waived and claimed three times in one season. He was placed on waivers by the Oilers then claimed by Carolina, then by Winnipeg and finally Ottawa. Anything can happen, of course, but it’s fair to say that’s generally not the goaltending background of a future Stanley Cup champion.
Then we move on the rookies. When the NHL’s youngest number one goalie (starting more than half his team’s games) is 24 years old (Jake Oettinger), how can you truly have confidence in the likes of Mads Sogaard (21), Leevi Merilainen (20), or Kevin Mandolese (22) being ready for prime time this early in their careers?
On Tuesday night, Merilainen loudly joined the battle for the title of “Sens goalie of the future.” Merilainen is already the sixth 2020 Ottawa draft pick to make the NHL. He played for Kingston in the OHL in 2021-22 before shifting back home to play pro hockey with Karpat this season, where he led the Finnish Elite League with eight shutouts.
The Sens played well in front of the young Finn Tuesday night, and that’s been an interesting trend. When the Sens have a goalie making his NHL debut, they’ve usually played some of their best games. Maybe a case of giving a little extra attention to team defence to support and insulate an inexperienced goalie? Last April, Sogaard won his first NHL game, 5-2 over Detroit. Fans fell in love with Mandolese’s Valentine’s Day debut – a 3-2 win over the Islanders. Ferguson was great on the first day of spring, facing 49 shots in a recent 2-1 win in Pittsburgh.
And Tuesday night, Merilainen was excellent, despite a 3-2 overtime loss in Carolina.
“I felt pretty good from start to finish,” Merilainen calmly told the media after the game. “A lot of shots (37). That’s always good. Was easy to stay in the game. But not happy with the result.”
His poise was evident in the 3 on 3 overtime, smartly coming out of his net to play a puck that prevented an icing call and allowed the Sens to maintain possession.
“He’s years ahead of himself,” head coach D.J. Smith said. “He made some big saves and looked really calm. Good for him.”
On Sunday, Smith was openly critical of Talbot for not giving them a big save when they needed it in the overtime loss in Columbus. He sounded relieved by Merilainen’s performance.
“We got some saves,” Smith said. “We know in this league you’re not going to win without them. And the kid did a really nice job tonight.”
When it comes to goalie of the future, Smith is keeping things in perspective and the fact is, none of the younger goalies have played enough hockey to make grand projections about.
“We’ve got some good young goalies in this organization and (Merilainen) is clearly one of them.”
That’s exactly right. But this team’s window for contending is opening right now. The unparalleled success clock has begun to tick. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are tied up for five more years. Drake Batherson and Artem Zub have four years left. Claude Giroux and Jakob Chychrun have two years left. It’s time to go…now. The Sens simply cannot wait two or three years for one of their young goalies to develop into what they need. That’s likely to be a waste of the core players’ prime years.
They also cannot just cross their fingers that Forsberg can become something he’s never been. If the team were truly that confident in that happening, they wouldn’t have brought in Talbot as what they hoped would be insurance last summer. And they would have stayed patient with Filip Gustavsson, who now stands second in NHL save percentage.
Ironically, despite the fact that seven different goalies suited up for the Sens this season – the second most in NHL history – Dorion probably still needs to go out to find a goalie this summer.
By Steve Warne