Let’s call it the three-headed goaltending mystery.
As the intensity of the skating and hitting heats up at Ottawa Senators training camp, so too does the intrigue surrounding who will be in the net for the season opener Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Will it be Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner? And where does all that leave Ben Bishop?
While coach Paul MacLean concedes that Anderson is the team’s “number one goaltender”, he also says that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll get the call immediately.
While the successes of Lehner and Bishop with Binghamton of the AHL this season have been well documented, there is some concern that Anderson could need more time to work his way back into NHL game shape following the four-month lockout.
“Well, Craig has earned the right to be the number one goalie, whether or not that means he starts the game Saturday or Monday here (against the Florida Panthers) or starts (the following) Thursday or Friday,” MacLean said following Monday’s spirited workout at Scotiabank Place.
“We’re going to make sure he’s ready to go when we get him in the net.”
It’s highly unusual for an NHL team to carry three goaltenders, but then again, this is hardly a normal year. Considering how vital each victory is during a 48-game season, teams aren’t willing to leave as many things to chance, such as allowing a goaltender to gradually work his way back into top form. During workouts this week, Anderson is getting all the work at one end of the ice, while Lehner and Bishop are splitting time on the other half of the rink.
The advantage the Senators have is that both Lehner (14-5-1, 1.90 goals against average and .945 save percentage) and Bishop (8-3-2, 2.66, .928) arrived in training camp after spending the first half of the season stealing wins for Binghamton.
If Anderson wasn’t deemed ready, Lehner would likely start against Winnipeg, with Bishop backing him up.
“If we have to do that (take three goaltenders), we have to do that,” said MacLean. “It’s not the best equation, but certainly starting out, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, maybe.”
General manager Bryan Murray says he’s leaving the decision in MacLean’s hands, but the one complication is that Lehner owns a two-way contract – paying him $900,000 if he’s in the NHL and $67,500 if he’s in the AHL – and doesn’t need to clear waivers to be sent back to Binghamton. Bishop, on the other hand, would need to clear waivers if he was assigned to the AHL and the Senators won’t risk losing him by making such a move.
“Paul can play the goaltender that he thinks will help us win games,” said Murray. “We’re very fortunate, I believe, to have three guys – quality, quality guys.”
Depending on that goaltending decision, the Senators will take either 22 or 23 healthy players with them to Winnipeg.
Murray says he’ll start the season with one extra forward (likely Kaspars Daugavins) and one extra defenceman. If, as expected, Cody Ceci is sent back to Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League, that means Binghamton call-ups Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki and Andre Benoit will all start the season with Ottawa. The lingering question is which of the three sits out the opening game.
So far, Murray has resisted the urge to add a veteran defenceman, either through a trade or by signing an unrestricted free agent, waiting to see if the Bingo boys can answer the challenge. Wiercioch has been paired with Sergei Gonchar for the opening two days of camp, but Borowiecki will receive a look with Gonchar at Tuesday’s workout.
As is typically the case, MacLean is using training camp to experiment. There is a fall back position, too. “We always know we can put Chris Phillips there,” said MacLean.
As much as Wiercioch has impressed early on, Borowiecki showed a measure of what he brings to the ice during Monday’s spirited scrimmage, involved in a healthy hitting exchange with fellow defenceman and Ottawa native Marc Methot at the blueline.
“He’s a big physical guy and I’m a physical guy, that’s the way I play,” said Borowiecki. “The guys are getting a little more intense, but in a situation like this, with a short camp, you want to tone it down a little bit. You don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
Methot, who is getting his fair share of attention while paired with Erik Karlsson, is also content with the increased battling. He also laid a loud hit on Erik Condra.
“I’m trying to get used to getting used to getting physical out there, it’s good to get into it and mix things up a little bit in practice,” he said.
The players should get used to it. After concentrating on skating drills in the opening two days of camp, MacLean says “the focus is more on banging and crashing (Tuesday).”
The Senators are due to have a day off from the ice Wednesday — the team will have a meet-and-greet with season ticket holders – and any training camp cuts will likely be made Wednesday night. The team will then practice Thursday morning before leaving for Winnipeg.
As much as fans are playing the guessing game, wondering who might be in goal or on defence when the season starts, MacLean says there are still major decisions to be made.
“We’re still a long way from Saturday,” he said.