A season that has been difficult at the best of times for the Ottawa Senators seemed primed to truly careen off the rails when Matt Murray was injured on March 14th. The team’s thus far undisputed starter — however you may feel about him — exiting warmups before a tilt with the Toronto Maple Leafs paved the way for Joey Daccord to take the reigns for the first time in his career, and while the 23 year-old looked solid in a small sample size, plenty of folks wondered whether or not he was ready for such a workload.
When Daccord went down for the season last week against the Vancouver Canucks, after some exceptional play, the situation was somehow worsened with 22 year-old Filip Gustavsson being thrust into his first NHL action. Given the youth in net, behind what is an abysmal defensive team, one couldn’t have been blamed for expecting things to fall apart for the Senators.
What has happened since then has evoked memories of other miraculous moments in the Ottawa crease.
Gustavsson stood tall, in relief of Daccord. He stopped all eight shots he faced, and gave the Sens every chance to win in the shootout. The rookie followed that up with a 35-save performance in his debut as an NHL starter, backstopping his club to a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames.
While it’s still early, and he’s only started the one game, Gustavsson has shown signs of being a blue-chip goaltending prospect for Ottawa. Add Daccord, and Kevin Mandolese to that conversation, and the Senators appear to have a loaded crease where prospects are concerned.
Unfortunately, the wider that this secret spreads across the league, the less loaded it could become.
The threat of the Seattle Expansion Draft looms large over the NHL. With the Kraken entering the league comes the threat of losing out on key players, and the only return being some hard feelings.
Ottawa can only protect one goaltender, and Murray, Marcus Högberg, Daccord, and Gustavsson all find themselves eligible to be claimed, along with with the Senators’ latest acquisition in Anton Forsberg.
It’s worth noting that there’s a better-than-good chance that none of Ottawa’s netminders get claimed by the Kraken. Names like Antti Raanta, David Rittich, Petr Mrazek, and Pavel Francouz — to name a few — promise to be available, and Seattle will almost certainly seek out established options in net.
Nevertheless, stranger things have happened, and Pierre Dorion needs to do his best to hang on to his young assets. So the question must be asked: who should the Senators protect?
Conventional wisdom would dictate that you’d protect your starter. In this case, that would be Murray. His relatively poor performance this year, coupled with his contract, however, likely make him an unappetizing candidate for Seattle, so it should be safe to leave him exposed. The same can be said of Högberg, given his injury and lacklustre showings in 2021, plus his contract expires at the end of the season. Forsberg may not even be a Senator come the summer, but they obviously won’t be protecting him, barring some sort of miracle.
With those three out of the question, that leaves the two young bucks in Daccord and Gustavsson, and a compelling case can be made for either.
In Daccord, the Senators have what is perhaps more of a sure thing. A stellar career with the Arizona State Sun Devils was followed up with a dominant first professional campaign, last year. Daccord posted a record of 15-6-2, with a .915SV%, and 2.61GAA, on a Belleville Senators team that seemed destined for a lengthy playoff run before COVID-19 ended the season.
That translated to what we saw from Daccord in 2021, before his unfortunate injury. Despite an overall record of 1-4-1, the Boston native had a save percentage of .897%, and GAA of 3.27. These are, however, numbers inflated by two ugly losses to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, respectively, for which Daccord was not at all responsible. Without those two games, his numbers are a much more flattering .928SV%, and 2.66GAA in six appearances.
Save for a couple of “burn the tape” nights for the Senators as a whole, Daccord was sensational while playing behind a team that gave up 159 shots over that span. The sample size is small, but given Daccord’s history and trademark confidence, it’s clear that the Sens have something in this player.
Gustavsson is perhaps more of an enigma. He was spectacular in his first two NHL appearances, but his career to this point has been a bit more up-and-down than Daccord’s. After a lights-out tenure in his native Sweden, Gustavsson owns a record of 31-34-4 across parts of four seasons in Belleville, with an overall .899SV% and 3.08GAA. Despite his relatively young age, last year was especially disappointing for Gus, in a season where the B-Sens were a contender, and Daccord emphatically took the reins.
None of that matters if Gustavsson emerges as a bonafide NHL goaltender this season, of course, but Dorion and Co. are still likely leaning towards protecting Daccord. He’s had more sustained success than Gustavsson overall, and this is something not to be taken lightly. Högberg looked nearly ready to be a starting goaltender last season, but struggled mightily to begin this year. The Sens will likely be conscious of a potential one-hit wonder.
Again, there’s no reason that Gustavsson can’t stake his claim to a full-time NHL role this season, and cause Dorion to leave Daccord exposed. At this stage in their respective careers, though, safeguarding the older, more proven asset seems like the smartest direction for the Senators to go in.
Amid all the speculation and conjecture, one thing remains certain: the kids are, in fact, alright.