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Why It's Time to Trade Craig Anderson

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It's not popular, but it's the right thing to do: trade Craig Anderson to improve the team

Anderson doing what he does best
Anderson doing what he does best
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Sheer_Craziness argued that the Ottawa Senators shouldn't trade Craig Anderson. The crux of his argument is as follows:

  1. Any trade would make the Senators worse in the short term, especially considering there is no obvious back-up goalie for Lehner should he become the starter
  2. Any trade would produce mediocre returns that don't justify the trading of a goalie
  3. Less important but still a caveat: Craig Anderson's going pretty well at age 33 so maybe he will still be playing well enough until the end of his contract
Item number three is something of an unknowable problem in that Craig Anderson *could* be the goalie that plays well late into his 30s, or he could not. We know a lot about goalie aging, and it's not pretty.

It's hard to criticize a decision that takes the road most traveled. But it's a mistake because you're counting on Andy performing differently than the vast majority of goalies in NHL history. That's not a gamble I'd be quite so comfortable making.

Five months later, not much has changed on this front. Anderson's looked good, as we knew he might, but he's still 33 and he's still locked up until he's 36. At some point he's not going to be a good starting goalie in the NHL. We don't know when exactly, but we do know goalies historically get much worse as they enter their mid-30s. I tend to want to base my wager on historical data but you don't have to. Ultimately though, this is just a minor point.


To properly gauge whether Ottawa should trade Andy, It's not as simple as just answering the question of "Will Craig Anderson buck the odds?". By keeping Anderson, Ottawa is making an explicit choice not to upgrade their team in other areas. This is a problem because Ottawa's issues start and (mostly) end with a lack of depth on the back-end. If the team wasn't so badly out-shot all the time, they wouldn't need unsustainable goalie play in order to compete.


To illustrate my point, let's use the performance of the team from before and after the firing of Paul MacLean: Ottawa  has gone from allowing 34.4 shots against per game all the way down to 29.2. There are lots of factors at play here, but 5 shots a game is a bundle. Allowing five fewer shots per game means 400 or so shots per season. NHL league average save percentage tends to hover around .915  so let's use that. What we get is a team that we'd expect to allow 35 fewer goals with league average goaltending. That's a lot!


Now, let's compare the difference between Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Andy is having a great year, .927 in all situations, better even than his career .916 save percentage. Lehner is having a rough season, .900 SV% in all situations, much worse than his career .914 SV%. On a go-forward basis, in the short-to-medium term, it's most likely that Anderson and Lehner both perform closer to their career averages than to the outlier seasons they're currently having, but to be conservative let's use Anderson's .927 as the benchmark for his future performance. The difference between a .927 SV% and a .914 SV% goalie for a starting goalie, given Ottawa's current rate of allowing shots under Cameron, would be 25 goals over 65 games. Again, I think I'm being overly generous here in allowing a starter 65 games but the point is to build a conservative case. 25 goals isn't anything to sneeze at but it's not as big an improvement in the goals against category as you get from playing defense at a league average level (which the team is doing under Cameron).
What I'm getting at is this: upgrading the defense to be league average on a regular basis is more important than having a starting goalie posting a .927 save percentage. I doubt that all of the existing defensive issues have been solved since MacLean was fired -- this is still almost entirely the same defense group, and that group badly needs upgrading.


Which brings us  to the main point: if you accept that the team will most improve by upgrading its defense, it needs to have the assets to do this. Craig Anderson is an avenue to acquiring said assets in a variety of ways:

  • A trade directly with a team that needs a goalie. This is unlikely to yield a top four defenseman, but possible.
  • More likely, trading Anderson would yield draft picks that you could then flip to acquire top four defensemen. Remember that Boychuk was traded just this summer for two seconds and a third.
  • Freeing up money to spend on UFA defenseman. Again, this is unlikely given Ottawa's history and tight budget but it's possible.
Yesterday, Sheer argued that goalie trades don't yield top flight every day players. This is mostly true, though once upon a time the Ottawa Senators gave up Antoine Vermette for Pascal Leclaire and a second round pick. Jaroslav Halak yielded Lars Eller. Stranger things have happened. More realistically though, if you are trading a good goalie you can expect to get at the bare minimum a second and something. If the Senators turned around and packaged the picks from an Anderson deal with one or two of their own, they absolutely could re-stock the backend. Combine this with the added bonus of Andy's shedded salary and it's easy to imagine a dollar in, dollar out scenario where Ottawa barely increases its spending but has essentially swapped Anderson for a top four defenseman.

When I look at this team, believe it or not, I see the outlines of a top team in the East. But in order to contend, the defense needs to be upgraded;  there's no two ways around it. It's not reasonable to expect Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba or Mark Borowiecki to get much better. Heck, Methot and Karlsson are almost certainly at their peaks at well. Only Ceci is a realistic internal option for improvement. Unless there's a dramatic change in the team's finances, Ottawa won't be able to spend their way to attracting top UFA talent on defense, either. Instead they need to maximize their assets. Craig Anderson is not only a depreciating asset who will only be worth less in the future, he's also blocking their improvement by using up payroll that could be spent more efficiently . Would the Senators have been terrible this year without Anderson? Of course. They also wouldn't have been terrible if they had a proper top two pairings; Anderson can be the ticket to fixing that.