The Ottawa Senators and goaltending

Whenever the Hurricanes play the Senators, all I can think of is how Ottawa has never learned their lesson with goaltenders. What I mean by that is they have spent big money on goaltenders and took unnecessary risks on them despite evidence showing how volatile the position. Ever since the lockout, they have gone through six different starting goalies and have spent a total of approximately $31,613,000 on them, which is equal to a little over $5 mil per season. The worst part of it is that they haven’t gotten much value for any of their goalies after the lockout which makes me wonder why GM Bryan Murray keeps making the same mistakes when it comes to signing goaltenders. It seems that almost every time Ottawa finds a goalie who performs well, they decide to ink him to a 3+ year deal with a cap hit that’s a little above $3+ mil. and get little to no value in return for that. They recently did this with Craig Anderson who put up a .939 save percentage after the Sens traded for him in February last year. is even strength save percentage this year is now only .904, way below the league average which shows how Ottawa still has not learned their lesson with goalies.

I know it sounds weird to let someone who performed so well just walk away but the fact is that for the most part, goaltending is very unpredictable and the Senators keep taking large risks on it with things like the Anderson contract. It’s ridiculous when you go back in history and see how many similar mistakes they have made, which we’ll look at after the jump.

We’ll go in chronological order starting with the lockout.

Ray Emery

This is where it all began for the Sens. Everyone knows Ray Emery from when he stepped after Dominik Hasek was injured and eventually became the Sens starting goaltender throughout their playoff run in the 2005-06 season. Now, the year after that they did the smart thing by signing Emery to a one year deal at a $500k raise from the $450k he made last season. He then helped Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals and posted a .930 save percentage that year, which is ridiculously good. The year after that is when the trouble started.

Murray decided to reward Emery with a three-year deal worth about $3.17 mil per season, which seems very reasonable at first glance because the guy had just helped his team win the Eastern Conference. In retrospect, this contract looks awful because Emery was hurt for most of the off-season, began the season on the IR and put up a very pedestrian .908 EV save percentage with the Sens. To make matters worse, he had attitude problems and eventually lost his starting job to back-up and Canes legend Martin Gerber. Tired of his shenanigans, Murray elected to buy out Emery’s contract and the Sens are STILL paying that off in cap money to this day. Emery is now making the league minimum for the Chicago Blackhawks and is proving to be a serviceable goalie at the very least.

I know that Murray didn’t see Emery having a complete meltdown and the contract he gave him doesn’t appear to be that bad but he still wasted $9.5 mil for more than three years by taking a risk on a goalie for a strong recent performance. He should have known better after this but the mistakes continued well after that. 

Money invested: a little over $10 mil.
Value: Great before three-year deal, awful after that.

Martin Gerber

After his collapse in the 2005-06 playoffs with the Hurricanes, Gerber was signed to a three year deal worth $3.7 mil by the Senators to compete with Emery for the starting job. At the time, Gerber appeared to be a cheaper option than re-signing Hasek since Emery had essentially played him out of the starting spot but you would think they could sign Gerber to a much cheaper price after his horrendous showing in the playoffs with Carolina. Gerber was never that bad of a goalie for the Senators, though. He was a serviceable back-up for them in their cup run (.928 EV sv%) and was able to out–play Emery for the starting job the next season which led to that debacle. Still, his performance in that season was very average (.918 EV Sv%) and not exactly worth $3.7 mil. per season. I should also mention that they signed him to this deal at the age of 32 and he was initially the back-up goalie so there is no question that Murray overpaid for Gerber here.

Things got ugly in the 2008-09 season when Gerber was in the final year of his contract and was playing horribly with a an EV sv% of only .908. Since they were getting solid play from back-up Alex Auld and rookie Brian Elliott at the time, Murray saw no reason to keep Gerber around at all and waived him. He was then claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs and is currently playing for the Edmonton Oilers AHL organization. The mistake here is that Murray paid $3.7 for a guy who had only been a starter for one season in his career and while he did play well as Emery’s back-up, he committed too much money to him and Gerber was claimed for next to nothing off the waiver wire by the Maple Leafs later in the year. Since the Leafs got the same goalie for less than $2 mil off waivers, you’d think this would show him that goaltending is not something you want to make a long commitment to, right?

Money invested: $11.1 mil.
Value: Bad

Alex Auld

Auld was signed to a two-year $2 mil. deal to back-up Gerber for the 2008-09 season and he put up a strong .928 EV save percentage. He eventually went on to start 43 games for the Sens in a 1a/1b role. Why am I mentioning this? Because this is one of the only times that Murray was able to receive good value from a goaltender that he acquired via free agency. He was traded in the off-season to the Dallas Stars for a 6th round pick. Why would he do that? Auld is a solid back-up and the tandem with him and Brian Elliott appear to be a good low-cost/low-risk option. It’s because Murray found this next goalie to be the “starter” and it may have been his worst decision as GM of the Senators.

Auld is now back with the Senators as a back-up but his performance has tailed off quite a bit.

Money invested: $2 mil.
Value: Great

Pascal Leclaire

There are times when I can understand a GM taking a risk but this is not one of those instances. Leclaire had one good season as the Columbus Blue Jackets netminder in 2007-08 and appeared to be living up to his first round status. The next season he missed all but 12 games with an ankle injury and the Jackets were looking to trade him with Steve Mason seemingly stepping into his starting role. Murray didn’t care about how well Auld/Elliott were playing or that Leclaire was out for almost the entire year and sent Antoine Vermette to the Jackets in exchange for Leclaire along with a 2nd round pick (who ended up being Robin Lehner, another goalie).

Murray not only traded for Leclaire, but he also took on the remainder of his three-year $11.4 mil. contract which is a ton of money to commit to an injury-prone goalie how had only one good season in the NHL. I understand that you want to grab players in the “prime” of their careers but whenever you trade a good player like Vermette away for a three-year contract, it might be a better idea to get a player who has shown more consistency over his career. 

This Leclaire deal already looks like a gigantic flop and I haven’t even mentioned how he performed in Ottawa. He put up a .889 EV sv% in his first full season with the Sens and played only 34 games. The next year he put up a below average .914 EV Sv% in only 14 games so the Senators got only 48 games of below-average to awful goaltending out of Leclaire and this risk proved to be a huge mistake on Murray’s part. This is after he was burned by the Emery and Gerber deals so it’s surprising that he didn’t learn his lesson at all from that. This trade would be a fireable offense if he didn’t get the 2nd round pick in return.

Money invested: $9.6 mil.
Value: AWFUL.

Brian Elliott

Here’s the part where I began to think that Murray was learning how goaltending works in the NHL. Here we have a 23-year old rookie who played four years of college hockey and two years in the AHL and despite that, he played very well for the Sens his rookie season with a .920 EV Sv% over 31 games. That was good enough for Murray to bring him back on a two-year deal worth only $850k per season, which is very fair and great value for what he did the previous season.

Unfortunately, Elliott could not replicate his great performance as a rookie as he put up below average numbers in net the next two years (.907 EV sv% in 2009-10, .900 EV Sv% in 2010-11) and was dealt to Colorado for Craig Anderson in a goalie-for-goalie swap. I understand that Elliott has been a brick wall for the St. Louis Blues this year but I don’t blame Murray one bit for trading him. He signed Elliott to a low-risk deal after a strong recent performance and Elliott didn’t look like a starting goaltender during that time, so the reasonable thing to do was to trade him before his contract expired and the Sens ended up getting the better goalie without giving up too much. Sure, you can saw “Murray is a fool for trading him” but who saw Elliott putting up a .944 save percentage after being close to replacement value the last two seasons? I would criticize Murray for the deal he gave Anderson long before I would for trading Elliott.

Money invested: about $2 mil.
Value: Marginal-bad

Craig Anderson

Anderson was once one of the NHL’s biggest bargains when the Colorado Avalanche signed him to a deal worth only $2 mil in cap space and he ended up giving them some of the league’s best goaltending for most of the season. Had it not been for him, the Avs wouldn’t have been close to a playoff spot that year but unfortunately, his play regressed the next year and he performed at a slightly below average level until he was traded to Ottawa. He put up a .939 save percentage with the Sens and that coincided with their surge out of the cellar during the second half of last season which prompted Murray to re-sign him to a four year deal worth $3,197,500 per season.

The money isn’t bad considering it’s about a $1 mil raise compared to what he made the previous year but giving him a four year deal when he was burned multiple times by doing the same thing with other goalies shows some awfully poor decision making on Murray’s part. Considering that he gave two other goalies 3 year contracts worth over $3+ mil per season in past years and ended up waiving both, I’m surprised that he decided to do the same thing with Anderson. This situation is nearly identical to what he did with Emery after his Stanely Cup run because both goalies put up .930+ save percentages in limited time and were rewarded with a long-term deal as a result. Actually, this might actually be worse than Emery because he actually put up a .930 save percentage for a whole season whereas Anderson stood on his head for only a couple months as a Senator.

The deal is off to a similar start for Anderson as he’s put up only a .904 EV save percentage this season and the Senators are still a below average team in goaltending.

Money invested: over $12 mil for four years
Value: TBA

All I can think of when I review these situations is that the Senators just don’t “get it” when it comes to goaltending. The only time that Murray actually received decent value is with goalies on entry level contracts like Emery and Elliott or ones that he acquired to be a back-up like Auld. It is just stunning that he would make the same mistakes in a short time span and never pick up on it. He’s wasted over $31 mil of the Sens money by taking these poorly advised risks on goalies and failing to get much value out of them.

Basically, if you want to know why rewarding a goalie with a long-term deal for a solid recent performance is a bad idea, just look at every single signing that Bryan Murray has made since the lockout and you’ll understand.