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The Uncomfortable Possibility with Craig Anderson

It’s hard to tell exactly when an aging veteran is “done,” but what if this is what we’re witnessing with Craig Anderson?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at New York Islanders Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

No fan ever wants to believe that their favourite players will see their play drop-off as they get closer to age 40.

No fan ever wants to watch a player visibly decline right in front of their eyes, either. With Craig Anderson, the narrative was always that he only became a full-time starter at age 28, so he might be able to age better than most goalies. And up until this point, he has been a fantastic goalie for the Senators in his 30s.

But what if these 20 games are the beginning of the end for him as a top starter in the league?

It is a scary thought that nobody wants to discuss, but let’s be honest: he has not been nowhere near good enough this season. And if Anderson isn’t at least an above average goalie, then this team isn’t going very far.

With an 88.90 overall SV% and an 89.30 5v5 SV% (before Sunday’s relief appearance), he isn’t giving the Senators any chance to win. Out of the 59 goalies that have played 300 minutes this season, Anderson ranks 53rd, and he is also 57th/60 amongst those with 200 5v5 minutes.

Sometimes we can evaluate a goalie’s play and say that he is getting unlucky on the penalty kill and that his 5v5 SV% is still good enough. That is far from the case with Anderson though, as he looks bad in every game state. What is worrisome to me is that his high-danger save percentage has dropped precipitously compared to previous seasons.

High-danger shots include those that are very close to the net, and since it involves more skill to save a shot from close by than a shot from the blueline, it is a good way to evaluate a goalie’s play. By looking at Anderson’s previous seasons, it is clear that the big difference is his inability to make the big saves:

Anderson’s Situational SV%

Year Low Danger SV% (Rank) Medium Danger SV% High Danger SV%
Year Low Danger SV% (Rank) Medium Danger SV% High Danger SV%
17-18 97.44 (19th) 88.14 (30th) 68.57 (30th)
16-17 98.21 (11th) 92.14 (16th) 84.62 (3rd)
15-16 98.54 (5th) 91.75 (29th) 77.19 (29th)
14-15 98.16 (13th) 92.83 (12th) 80.77 (14th)
13-14 97.87 (19th) 94.46 (3rd) 75 (28th)
12-13 99.21 (1st) 95.07 (1st) 78.26 (19th)
These stats are ranked out of between 30-36 goalies (1500 minimum minutes played). Numbers do not include last night’s game

As you can see, this season is his worst over the past six seasons for low-danger, medium-danger, and high-danger shots. But the high-danger SV% is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb, as a drop from 84.62% to 68.57% is massive and it has killed the team.

The only season Anderson has been elite in terms of high-danger scoring chances was last season (84.62%), but even if he had a SV% in the high 70’s, that would most likely mean a few more wins for the Senators. It doesn’t help that he has been below average in easy and average chances as well, and you can pretty much describe his season as not being good in any area.

There is one saving grace with all of this data, and that is the fact that his expected 5v5 SV% from is 92.35 (14th overall), meaning that perhaps he’s due for some positive regression. However, while it is reasonable to expect him to play better than he has, I have a hard time getting these bad images of him out of my mind.

The New York Islanders game-winner last Saturday sticks out to me, as his lateral movement looks like a goaltender who is aging rapidly:

Besides a goal against going on his stats page, that slow movement isn’t going to show up in the numbers, but it is something that I worry about. At age 36, you can never rule out a player simply losing his ability in an instant.

It is weird to think that the same goalie who played phenomenal in the playoffs with a 92.20 SV% could suddenly become bad, but it’s hard to be optimistic about where his performance is headed.

The thing about this Senators team is also that Anderson is the only goalie who can be a starter right now. Mike Condon is clearly a backup goalie, as both times when he played for an extended period of time in Montreal and Ottawa he wore down at the end. His 90.4 SV% this season and career 90.8% in 105 games don’t exactly scream “starting goalie.” Besides that, Ottawa may have to wait a year or two before Marcus Hogberg can hopefully take the reigns.

And what will happen if by the end of the season Anderson has a SV% around or below 90.0? Should they try to go after another goalie in free agency or try to trade for an up-and-coming backup looking to break-out? It would be an incredibly tough situation with the amount of money that will have to be allocated to increased salaries beyond this season, but I’m not sure how they can go into next year with him as the starter if he doesn’t show significant improvement.

That’s a big if, but it’s at least worth thinking about.

Of course, with any of this sort of data, we have to be careful to not create absolutes. It has been 20 games, which is a long stretch to be playing poorly, but it is not inconceivable to think that Anderson could go on a fantastic run coming up. After all, he’s proven me wrong before. Furthermore, sometimes the margin of error can be so slim that the difference between a few minor mistakes make the numbers look a lot worse.

However, at the end of the day, we all know that Anderson hasn’t been nearly good enough, nor has he looked agile or quick to react. He’s the best goaltender in franchise history and I really hope he has more left in him, because if not, Ottawa is in some trouble.