It's old news by now, but the Ottawa Senators addressed their goaltending controversy the easy way: By sending Robin Lehner and his two-way contract down to the Binghamton Senators. For the time being, anyway.
In the past, I've criticized Lehner for failing to demonstrate the maturity necessary to become a full-time NHL goaltender. Some people are suggesting that remains the case, and serves as an explanation for his demotion. But I'm not buying it. This year, Lehner has responded positively to every challenge lately sent his way: He trained like a beast in the off-season and attended the rookie camp in the best shape he's ever been in, he battled against Ben Bishop in Binghamton and out-performed him, he came to Ottawa in a less-than-optimal three-goalie grouping without even whispers of unhappiness, and he's responded to the demotion perfectly. Some have made hay of his mention of the "politics" involved in the decision, but that's not an issue to me. It's a statement of fact made by a rightfully confident young goaltender, and it was surrounded by acceptance of the reality that he is left with one choice: Get to Binghamton and continue kicking ass.
As is often the case, the easiest explanation is the right one: The politics are why Lehner were sent to Binghamton. His two-way contract gave Ottawa the flexibility to temporarily avoid carrying three goaltenders, despite the fact that Lehner had once again proven that he is a better goaltender than (at least) one of his colleagues on the NHL roster.
But you may have noticed that I said temporarily, and that was intentional--and I think it will be, in ideal circumstances, a very temporary fix. Ben Bishop is a good goaltender, maybe very good, but he hasn't been better than Lehner is and he hasn't surpassed his Swedish counterpart on the depth chart except by virtue of the fact that he's on a one-way deal.
What this move gives the Senators (and specifically Bryan Murray) is the luxurious freedom to take their time to make a trade that will more permanently solve this goaltending logjam and clear a spot for Robin Lehner. Since it's unlikely that Craig Anderson will be the odd man out, that means that Bishop is once again playing for a trade to a team more in need of a goaltender. The compressed schedule won't just allow him that opportunity; it guarantees it. He'll probably have his first start of the season by the end of the week, and will get an opportunity to showcase his abilities to buyers out there while helping the Senators en route.
This is not news. Bishop undoubtedly knows that he's in tough against both Anderson and Lehner, and realizes that he's once again playing as much to impress other teams as to help his team. He's a pending restricted free agent who won't likely be re-signed by the Ottawa Senators, which means if he's not traded mid-season his rights will almost certainly be dealt in the summer.
Bishop also must realize, however, that this situation was engineered by Bryan Murray, and it's also been handled just about perfectly by the Senators' GM. The Senators acquired Bishop for pennies on the dollar last year, but they're not excited to give him up at such a steep discount. It seems likely that Murray's initial plan was to hold on to Bishop for the whole season before making a decision, but that timeline has been expedited by both Lehner's maturity and dominance as well as the sudden need for a top-four defenceman in light of Jared Cowen's season-ending injury.
But Murray, on the other side of the coin, must realize today how lucky he's been so far by the play of his goaltenders. Things would be very different today if any one of the three had faltered; if Anderson had looked bad instead of outstanding in his first two starts, or if Lehner had pouted about the politics influencing his spot on the roster, or if Bishop hadn't signed the AHL deal that kept him in game shape during the lockout. Competition is a great thing for goaltenders, and it's kept these three on top of their game, but their respective maturities in handling the situation has certainly helped the team and management keep an even keel through it. It also gives Bryan Murray the upper hand in all trade negotiations (some of which are currently ongoing, according to reports), since there's no urgency on his part; he can sit back and wait for the desperation of other teams to continue building until they offer an exceptional package Ottawa's way.
So now we wait, while each of the three goaltenders play with the knowledge that there are two competitors very close behind them and ready to pounce on the slightest opportunity. We, as fans, should enjoy the prime position we're in today; it's preferable to the situations of Senators' teams past (2010-11 in particular) or the gongshow currently miring the Vancouver Canucks.
Craig Anderson should be enjoying it, because he's playing some great hockey right now. Ben Bishop has a lot on the line, but must be at least relieved that his one-way deal gives him the upper hand (in stark contrast to the position he was in last season, stuck behind Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak). Although Robin Lehner would certainly rather be in Ottawa, he might as well enjoy his time in Binghamton (and at the AHL All-Star Game) with the knowledge that it's only a matter of time (and probably not too much time) before he finally goes toe-to-toe in a battle to become "the guy" at the NHL level.
And Bryan Murray should enjoy it, as well, and absolutely must take full advantage of the position he's in: With an abundance of goaltenders in one of the strongest sellers' markets in recent history.