The Ottawa Senators have a goaltending mess. There's not other way to look at it. This summer's decision has shades of Wade Redden vs. Zdeno Chara in that most likely one good player will be offloaded, and a good chunk of the fanbase will complain whatever choice is made. (The big difference is that Ottawa could get something in return for one of the departing pieces this time around.) There appears to be no right choice, and lots of potential for any choice to be the wrong one. People far more knowledgeable than me have already waded into the dangerous waters of this conundrum and returned with varying decisions. That being said, I've decided to split it up based on a few scenarios I can see this team taking. To help set the scene, here are the four major players:
Craig Anderson, 33 years old (34 before the season starts), three years left at $4.75-, $4.75-, and $3.1-million. The oldest but also the one with the most proven track record. Has been the Sens' best player in at least two playoff series.
Robin Lehner, 23 years old (24 by next season), two years left at $2.025- and $3.2-million. He's been the goalie of the future for four years now, but has never really seized the starter's role. Still, it's easy to forget he's only seven months older than Matt O'Connor.
Andrew Hammond, 27 years old, UFA. Stormed onto the scene this year with a ridiculous 20-1-2 record with a .941 SV% and a 1.79 GAA. Still, only has 25 starts (regular season and playoffs) in his NHL career which all came this season.
Matt O'Connor, 23 years old, two years at $925,000 per year. The highly-coveted newcomer is expected to start the year in Binghamton, and should finish there barring injuries. Likely moved Chris Driedger and Marcus Hogberg down the depth chart.
So here are the major players. The next question is, where do the Sens see themselves right now? Ottawa's possession-fueled (and yes, luck-fueled) run to the playoffs may indicate that they're ready to contend already. It may have been a flash in the pan. How you view this season likely affects how you view the goaltending situation moving forward.
Option 1: Ottawa's time to contend is now
In favour: Erik Karlsson is 24, Kyle Turris is 25, Bobby Ryan is 28, Clarke MacArthur is 30. Some of Ottawa's best players are about to hit the downswings of their career (if they haven't already started).
Opposed: Some of Ottawa's biggest contributors this year were just getting going. Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad should be expected to improve next year. A full season of Patrick Wiercioch should help the team. Guys like Matt Puempel and Shane Prince, pieces acquired in the rebuild, aren't ready to contribute a regular NHL shift yet.
If you like Option 1, then I think it's pretty clear you trade Lehner. Anderson hasn't succumbed to the goaltending post-age-30 drop-off like most do. He probably will soon, but there's no reason to expect he falls from the high of the most recent playoffs to abject mediocrity by the end of 2015-16. Anderson in my opinion is the best option for winning now. Lehner could be packaged with some other pieces (hopefully Jared Cowen, Alex Chiasson, and Zack Smith, but more likely Shane Prince or even Mike Hoffman) to bring in a "top-six forward" who could contribute to the win-now ideal. Signing Hammond as your backup should save a million dollars that can go into re-signing the RFAs. Then hopefully when Anderson's play drops off, one of O'Connor, Driedger, or Hogberg can handle NHL duty.
Option 2: Ottawa's window starts in 2-3 years
In favour/Opposed: Reverse the arguments from Option 1
In this option, you trade Anderson. His value is only going to decrease from here as he ages, likely suffers from more injuries, and even more likely sees his numbers deteriorate. You thank him for the good years and trade him for whatever he gets you. Lehner has posted very similar numbers as Carey Price up to age 23, so he stands as the best bet to be the starter in 2-3 years. In this case, signing Hammond as backup opens up probably almost $3-million for the next three years to re-sign RFAs. If you want to compete in 2-3 years, having as many goalies in their primes as possible is probably the best way to go. That means you keep Lehner.
Option 3: Plan for the worst, hope for the best
In favour: Goalies are unpredictable, and your best bet is to be ready for whatever happens. Plus you never know when injuries might derail all your plans.
Opposed: A focused strategy means that you are likely to succeed in one scenario; this is an unfocused strategy, which means you're likely to perform poorly in all scenarios. Also, this is the most expensive option.
Who really knows Ottawa's contention window? And who knows how capable Andrew Hammond really is? After all, teams had almost no scouting reports on him when he entered the NHL. We saw in the playoffs that he looked pretty average against a team that's had a chance to scout him. What you do is you let Hammond walk, and keep both Lehner and Anderson. Odds are good one of them should put up good enough numbers to be a starter in 2015-16. The only problem here is that Anderson/Lehner is a fairly expensive tandem (by the Sens' standards). Is it worth trading the rights to an RFA to keep them both in the fold?
Being a risk-averse human being, this is my favourite choice. In the short-term, you're hoping either Anderson maintains his level of play or Lehner improves. In the long term, you've got Lehner and a bunch of other young goalies, at least one of whom should be capable of starting. The problem with playing it safe is that although you likely don't get burned, you're looking at a low-reward outcome. Letting Hammond walk for nothing means that the supposed goaltending depth brings no return to Ottawa in 2015-16.
Option 4: Some people just want to watch the world burn
In favour: No guts no glory, right?
Opposed: Very high-risk option
There's always the option of trading both Anderson and Lehner, and either riding Hammond/O'Connor, or calling up Driedger and giving O'Connor the bulk of the AHL starts. This option is intriguing because trading both Anderson and Lehner could likely bring in a decent haul. Using them as centrepieces in separate trades might give Ottawa a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman. Running Hammond/whoever gives Ottawa a goalie tandem for likely less than $2-million. That's a huge cry from nearly $7-million owed Anderson/Lehner next year. Think how much internal budget that frees up. Of course, this would badly deplete Ottawa's area of strength. Hammond hasn't played nearly enough to show that he's the real deal at the NHL-level, which makes Driedger and O'Connor even more unpredictable. The payoff if this move works out is huge, but the potential for it to backfire is also huge. NHL GMs tend to be very risk-averse, so I can't see the team even thinking about doing this.
There's no right answer, and lots of potential for every answer to be wrong. I think the team will pick Option 1. It's been rumoured that Lehner had already been on the trading block, and the emergence of Hammond likely increases the likelihood he's gone.
This article did ignore some important points. For example, you make whatever trade you can get if the return is high. If either Anderson or Lehner can be the centrepiece of a trade that nets you Jordan Eberle or Jaden Schwartz you make that trade. Also, a lot of this hinges on Lehner's health. The return on damaged goods normally isn't great. Maybe the team signs Hammond, then lets Lehner play himself back into having trade value before dealing him. I doubt management will switch from seeing him as goalie of the future to trading him for whatever they can get in one year.
In the end, Murray and co. will have to make a tough decision this summer. Whatever happens, I think it will give us a good idea of whether management has a short-term, long-term, or I-don't-know-term view of this team's Cup-contending window.