On Saturday, Marcus Hogberg nearly stole a game himself, leading the Belleville Senators to a 1-0 overtime loss against the Toronto Marlies in which the B-Sens were outshot 36-10. That’s an atrocious lack of offensive support for Högberg, and it’s incredible to think he was that close to stealing an undeserved victory. So far this AHL season, he’s played four games, with a 1.76 GAA and a .934 save percentage. It’s just a reminder that he still has the potential to be a very good goalie for the Sens. I had him 9th in the most recent Top 25 Under 25, the only writer to put him in the top ten. That definitely surprised me that everyone else was so down on him.
Ottawa drafted Högberg back in 2013, at 78th overall in the third round. NHL Central Scouting had him pegged fourth among international goalies, and The Hockey Writers had him as a promising goalie, behind Juuse Saros, Zach Fucale, Eric Comrie, and Cal Petersen as notables. It’s not hard to see why he was drafted — he’d had decent stats as a 17-year-old playing U20 hockey, and he was alreayd 6’ 3” (he’s now hit 6’ 5”). The Sens had depleted their goalie pipeline, and decided they needed another in the system after drafting Chris Driedger and Francois Brassard the year before. Goalies are fairly unpredictable, so having another in the system couldn’t hurt.
His development had to at least start off better than the Sens could have dreamed. He was a top-three U24 goalie in the SHL three years in a row. Keep in mind that he was 19 starting that first season, so putting him in the U24 category was comparing him to goalies a few years older. By the time he came over, he was easily Ottawa’s best goalie prospect.
And then things got weird. Högberg was set to be on the Belleville Senators, leaving Sweden for his NHL shot. Then the Sens signed Danny Taylor from the KHL. It wasn’t a bad move — signing an older goalie who’s had European success to see if he can replicate it in the NHL à la Tim Thomas — but it was obvious early on that he wasn’t going to be great, and yet he still played 32 games. Andrew Hammond found his wasy into 18 games, including 12 after he was part of the Avalanche franchise. Under coach Kleinendorst, Högberg was the third goalie, getting shipped off regularly to the Brampton Beast to make room for a KHLer with no North American future and another team’s third-stringer. The lack of consistency definitely didn’t make for a good year of development.
I get that Högberg didn’t put up stellar numbers last year, with a 3.27 and .899 in the AHL, which were almost identical to both Taylor’s and Hammond’s numbers (3.15/.900 and 3.34/.900 respectively). But in a year where the team was obviously bad and neither of the other goalies had a future with the franchise, I really expected Högberg to get more chances to start down the stretch. And to be fair, he kind of did, with all of his AHL appearances coming after Christmas last season. Still, it really wasn’t until the Filip Gustavsson trade that the B-Sens decided to give their young netminders a real shot at playing.
And the Gustavsson trade only magnified the concerns about Högberg. Suddenly the Sens had a younger, more famous goalie, that people had actually seen play at the World Juniors, while Högberg had only one appearance at the WJC. The Sens needed something to sell Sens fans on, and the goalie of the future as part of a sell-off trade seemed a good way to do it. It didn’t hurt that Gustavsson had a great end to the 2017-18 season after finishing up in Sweden, going 3.01 and .912 in seven AHL games, easily the best on the B-Sens.
When the Sens signed Mike McKenna in the offseason, I really worried that Högberg was going to fade into obscurity/Brampton. They said McKenna had been brought in to mentor the young goalies, but I could envision a situation with the veteran standby, the new hotness, and then Högberg as the forgotten third. The Sens’ approach to him felt a lot like my Grade 9 approach to having a crush on a girl — never talk to her, never give her a chance, and then wonder why she didn’t like me. The Sens didn’t give Högberg a chance to really play, and then wondered why he hadn’t blown their socks off. I was very prepared to see the team ship him back to Sweden, commenting that he hadn’t seized the opportunity, even though he hadn’t been given an opportunity.
Needless to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised this year. The Sens kind of got lucky with Högberg being injured early, and then Mike Condon being injured more recently, so they never had to decide who was the third goalie in Belleville and what to do with them. Instead, they’ve just had two goalies at each level. And maybe Gustavsson/Högberg will get a real chance to split games and grow into a great young goalie tandem.
I’m not saying Högberg is the next big thing. Goalies are unpredictable, and it’s best to have several options in the system. Acquiring Gustavsson was a great idea, because it gives the Sens another option for the future. I hope the pair of Swedes can push each other in the AHL. My only thoughts with Högberg are that he’s young (turned 24 two weeks ago) and put up stellar numbers in the Swedish men’s league. He deserves a real shot to play in the AHL, and could very well end up being an NHL goalie. Here’s hoping he gets a real shot this year, and maybe even grows into an NHL option for next season.