A Brief History of Ottawa Senators Goaltenders

By Chet Sellers

Following a 49-save performance in Game 3, and a season in which he’s put the team on his back nearly every time he’s taken the ice (.941 sv%, 1.69 GAA regular season; .940, 2.17 in the playoffs), it’s fair to ask the question – is Craig Anderson the best Senators goalie ever? Let’s find out!

(trigger warning: post contains graphic video of Senators playoff losses)

1993-1995: The Dark Ages

With their first pick in the 1992 expansion draft, the Senators selected goalie Peter Sidorkiewicz from the Hartford Whalers. Sidorkiewicz-mania gripped the capital.  “Let’s get dorky!” you’d shout, and nearby cars would honk their approval. As the father of six teen girls at the time, I can’t tell you how many fights I broke up over whose turn it was to stare dreamily at the Peter Sidorkiewicz poster.

Not really.  The way expansion drafts work, goalies are picked first, and with all the legitimate starters protected by their teams, the Senators and Lightning basically had their pick of career backups, AHL lifers, and guys who already had side jobs as cab drivers. Sidorkiewicz started 64 games, won eight, posted a GAA of 4.43, and still made the All-Star Game.  His backup, Daniel Berthiaume, nearly started Ottawa’s first goalie controversy by posting a sparkling 4.30 GAA over 25 games.

Sidorkiewicz was traded to the Devils in the off-season for Craig Billington and played only four more NHL games in his career. Billington was just as shaky the next season, winning 11 of 63 with a 4.59 GAA before going on to a successful career as a journeyman backup, becoming the patron saint of future Senators like Alex Auld and Curtis McElhinney.

Sidorkiewicz, Berthiaume, Billington, Darrin Madeley, Steve Weeks, Mark LaForest, Mike Bales – I wanted to make jokes about these guys getting to play on the basis of writing “GOALIE” on a 3x5 card and mailing it to the Senators, but I browse their stats on hockeydb.com and feel only sympathy. With the teams they had in front of them, it was a given that they’d handle more rubber than [ed. note - deleted]. Hope came in the form of Don Beaupre, at that point on the back end of his career, who put up respectable numbers during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season only to be traded as part of the three-way deal with the Maple Leafs and Islanders that brought in Wade Redden.  Beaupre ended up in Toronto, the stage in an aging goalie’s career euphemistically referred to as “going to live on a farm in the country”.

1996-99: From Out of the Darkness, Frosted Tips

Damian Rhodes came over from the Leafs in the Beaupre deal (note: this is the only context in which the Redden/Berard trade will ever be referred to as the “Beaupre deal”) and was immediately the best goaltender the Senators had ever had. He was the first starter to post a season GAA under 3.00 after taking over from Beaupre in early 1996, even if he could have more ups and downs than a guy in the 300 level after 17 beers.

Things were looking bright at the dawn of the 1996-97 season. The Senators had signed Washington’s AHL goalie, Ron Tugnutt, to back up Rhodes. Within weeks, though, Jacques Martin began his fascination with the goalie platoon, an arrangement that would continue between Tugnutt and Rhodes for the next three seasons. Rhodes was often flashier, but the team seemed to win more in front of Tugnutt. The pairing was enough to squeak the Senators into the playoffs for the first time as a 7-seed, with Tugnutt taking over in the first round against the Sabres.

Tugnutt was magnificent in the playoffs, essentially matching the performance of Hart Trophy winner Dominik Hasek as the Senators pushed the Sabres to seven games. He was also the first, but by no means the last, Senators goaltender to lose a playoff series in dramatic, heart-stopping fashion:

Roles were reversed in the following season, with Rhodes leading the Senators out of the first round against the Devils only to lose to the Capitals in the second. That off-season, in the hopes of finally developing their own goaltending talent instead of filling the net via trade, the Senators drafted can’t-miss goaltending prospect Mathieu Chouinard with the 15th overall pick.

The following year was Tugnutt’s best season, as he posted a 1.79 GAA but could not escape the platoon with Rhodes. The two each started two so-so playoff games with no scoring support from a team that won the Eastern Conference, getting swept in the first-round by the bloody Sabres again. During the off-season Rhodes was traded to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, battled knee and hernia problems, and was out of the league in three years. 

Ask a Senators fan today who they had more confidence in at the time and they will probably tell you Tugnutt, unless they are a hipster, in which case they will tell you Rhodes.  Rhodes’ time in Ottawa is not as fondly remembered, to the point where Tugnutt has all kinds of Youtube highlights, and Rhodes only has this:

In any event, the same day Rhodes was traded, the Senators also picked up an AHL from Anaheim named Patrick Lalime, ostensibly to back up the guy who had to be considered the #1 at this point, Tugnutt. Things were looking bright at last.

2000: The Hired Gun

So what did Jacques Martin do? He essentially used Lalime in the same platoon Tugnutt had already had with Rhodes. Jacques Martin was all over a goalie platoon. Jacques Martin would have cut two guys in half and sewed them together if he could have. Lalime actually ended up outplaying Tugnutt during the 1999-00 season, but with playoffs on the horizon, something had to give.

Something gave alright. In March, GM Marshall Johnston made what is probably still the Senators’ boldest deadline deal, sending Tugnutt and Finn fan-favorite Janne Laukannen to Pittsburgh for a veteran goalie who was having a sub-par year by his standards, but couldn’t hear you because of the two Cup rings plugging his ears. His name was Tom Barrasso.

The result was, perhaps predictably, a disaster. Barrasso had a shaky end to the regular season, was a bit of a barrasshole with the media, and skipped town in the off-season after another embarrassoing first-round exit.  He was the first, but by no means the last, Senators goaltender to lose a playoff series to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and, like most goalies after leaving Ottawa, was out of the league in two years.

(The Senators’ reputation as a “goalie graveyard” is ridiculously exaggerated.  Sure, a lot of them develop terminal illnesses in Ottawa, but most manage to go elsewhere before they finally die.)

That off-season, in the hopes of finally developing their own goaltending talent instead of filling the net via trade, the Senators drafted can’t-miss goaltending prospect Mathieu Chouinard with the 45th overall pick, and this time they signed him!  In three years in the Senators system he never made it out of the AHL.

2000-04: Limey

Following the barrasstrophe of the previous year, the Senators tried to re-sign Tugnutt, only to lose him to the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. You know, like when you break up with someone, try to win them back, and find out they’re very happy with somebody who works in a sewer.  Faced with that rejection, the Senators just said, “what the hell, put Lalime in there, see what happens.” He responded with the best year a Senators goalie had had to date, winning 36 of 60 starts with a 2.35 GAA for a team that finished two points out of first in the Eastern Conference.

A revenge matchup with the Leafs beckoned in the playoffs. The Leafs swept them. It wasn’t really Lalime’s fault.  Lalime was solid again in 2001-02 and absolutely outstanding in the first-round playoff series against a favored Flyers team, shutting them out in three of five games and allowing only one goal in each of the other two.

A revenge-revenge matchup with the Leafs beckoned in the second round.  The Leafs won in seven. It wasn’t really Lalime’s fault, although most people remember this in game 2:

2002-03 saw a third straight solid season for Lalime behind a team that won the President’s Trophy, followed by a long playoff run that saw Lalime post a 1.82 GAA in 18 games and keep the Senators in a lot of close games, although most people remember this from game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals:

That one’s on Redden, man. 2003-04, same story. A revenge-revenge-revenge matchup with the Leafs beckoned in the first round. Lalime kept it close again but could only do so much for a team that scored 11 goals in seven games and was shut out three times.  That said, game 7 wasn’t close, and most people remember this:

Lalime was pulled for backup Martin Prusek, Jacques Martin was fired, and Lalime was traded to St. Louis in the off-season. Everyone agreed dramatic action was called for to ensure this NEVER HAPPENED TO THE SENATORS AGAIN.  Today, Lalime may not be remembered all that fondly because of the moments above, but he did have five good years backstopping an excellent Senators team that simply couldn’t beat the Leafs in the playoffs for reasons that largely had nothing to do with him.  He still holds team records for games started, wins, playoff starts, playoff wins, playoff GAA (believe it or not), and psychic baggage.

2005-06: The Second Hired Gun

In a moment of WWE-style bravado, the Senators signed aging legend and mortal franchise enemy Dominik Hasek. Only signing Curtis Joseph could have exercised more Senators bad karma, and only if he’d also hit Bob Cole over the head with a chair after pulling on a Senators jersey. Hasek put together the best half-season by a goalie in Senators history, behind a loaded team that had also added Dany Heatley and saw a breakout year from Jason Spezza. Nothing was going to stop them.

While playing for the Czechs at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Dominik Hasek’s 41-year-old hip adductor stopped them. He wouldn’t play another game that year, leaving the team in the hands of backup Ray Emery, who had been shuttling up for spot start duty from Binghamton since 2002. Emery was solid but less spectacular than Hasek, and made it to the second round of the playoffs thanks mostly to the team’s offense rather than his own play. You know, just to really twist the knife for Patrick Lalime.

2006-08: Razor

Ray Emery had a . . . complicated relationship with the Senators franchise and the city of Ottawa. His life decisions, generally, are best left for discussion another time. What he was, at that point in his career, was a decent goalie who could hold the fort behind a team that scored goals in bunches. The Senators never fully trusted him, and brought in Martin Gerber from Carolina to try and take his starting job in 2006-07; Emery fought off Gerber, and, later, half the city of Buffalo:

Whatever else, Emery is still the goalie that has taken the team the farthest in the playoffs, and he lost the Cup finals in part because the offense finally let him down. The next year he finally lost the starting job to Gerber, who completely pooped the bed in the first round against the Penguins.

2008-11: The Black Plague

After 1993-95, this is the darkest period in Senators goaltending history, right around the time the aging core of the team could no longer be patched together with expensive free agents and deadline deals. In 2008-09, Gerber lost the starting job to Alex Auld and was eventually placed on waivers, with the Leafs claiming him to replace an injured Vesa Toskala. Senators fans laughed endlessly, having finally exacted some revenge all these years later.

7th-round pick and seemingly career-AHLer Brian Elliott was called up when Gerber was waived and he platooned with Auld the rest of the year.  The team traded for the oft-injured, and at-the-time-injured, Pascale Leclaire at the deadline, seeking some stability for the following season. Leclaire ensured that stability by remaining injured, including by getting his face broken while sitting on the bench, and was generally terrible in the few instances he was semi-healthy. Elliott carried the job for most of the next two seasons, inconsistently.

You know what? This is the darkest period in Senators history, full stop. Cory Clouston. Alex Kovalev. The Heatley trade. The SENS jersey. The end of eleven straight years in the playoffs. “So you’re an expert.” The Senators have always been a star-crossed team, but one that, more than anything, has been defined by their goaltenders – maximizing limited talent but not being quite ready with Tugnutt; good enough, but unable to win the big one with Lalime; flashy as hell, but a little cocky for their own good with Emery; and aimless, missing an identity under Elliott and Leclaire.  Which brings us to . . .

2012-2013: Beastmode

The crease was a dog’s breakfast for the Senators in 2010-2011, with guys like Curtis McElhinney, Mike Brodeur, and even a 19-year-old Robin Lehner getting time while Leclaire was injured and Elliott was unreliable. On February 18, 2011, in the middle of a series of “rebuilding” deals leading up to the trade deadline that saw guys like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly shipped out of town, GM Bryan Murray traded Elliott straight-up to Colorado for Craig Anderson, a guy who had been around the league and was having a terrible year after standing on his head for the Avalanche in the playoffs a year earlier.

It was a curious deal – it wasn’t exactly a rebuilding move, because Anderson was a lot older than Elliott and possibly washed up, but it wasn’t exactly a bad move, because Brian Elliott had been terrible. Senators fans were cautiously optimistic, figuring Anderson might regain some of his old form, and at the very least he would keep the seat warm for Lehner.  Anderson made 47 saves to shut out the Leafs the next day, and was good enough over the balance of the season to completely play the Senators out of the first overall pick. Within a month Anderson had signed a four-year, $13 million deal.

That deal looks like a bargain now.  Anderson was solid in 2011-12, with Murray making another savvy move to pick up Ben Bishop at the deadline while Anderson was out with a hand injury, giving Robin Lehner more time in the AHL. No one expected the Senators to make the playoffs, but after squeezing in as an 8-seed, Anderson found another gear in the playoffs, keeping the Senators in it for seven games against the Rangers. It was 1997 all over again.

This year Craig Anderson set the single-season record for save percentage, and would have won the Vezina had he been healthy all year. The Senators are not sneaking up on anyone in the playoffs at this point, and Anderson is the principal reason they are hanging in against the first-seeded Penguins.  He’s alternated between good and amazing for 2.5 seasons with the Senators at this point, and he’s been a complete rock in the playoffs. 

Look, I love Robin Lehner. Robin Lehner is the best goaltender the Senators system has ever produced, and he is going to be a star.  But outside of a handful of inner-circle Hall of Famers, even the best goalies have only a few years in which they’re truly locked in, often after spending years in the wilderness. Craig Anderson is in that period right now, and the Senators should ride it for as long as they can.  Even moreso than #pesky, the 2012-14 Senators will be defined by #beastmode.

Only Lalime was good for longer, and he wasn’t as good. Is Craig Anderson the best goalie the Senators have ever had? I say yes.
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