At this point in the season, it’s not a secret that the Ottawa Senators have received less-than-stellar goaltending. When Pierre Dorion traded for Matt Murray, and signed him to a 4 year extension, the expectation was that he would be the goalie not just of the present but of the immediate future as well. Of course there was some risk involved in trading for the two-time Stanley Cup Champion; Murray would not have been available had he maintained a high level of play in Pittsburgh. That being said, even the biggest skeptics would likely not have expected him to struggle so badly. By the raw numbers, Murray’s .883 SV% across all situations is the worst among all starters. The only goalie with a worse save percentage who has appeared in more than a handful of games is Marcus Högberg. On top of his poor performance, Högberg is now hurt as well. As you might imagine, this has the Sens somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Enter Joey Daccord. Daccord has been a top goalie prospect in the Ottawa organization for what now seems like an eternity, as he was originally drafted by the team in 2015 but elected to play three full seasons of NCAA hockey before turning pro and spending most of last year splitting time between the ECHL and the AHL. Daccord may have relatively little NHL experience to his name, but he’ll turn 25 in August; he’s not a young player by any stretch. Daccord has looked solid if unspectacular in this three appearances this year, boasting a .909 sv% across all situations. With Murray struggling so badly, and Högberg injured, is it time to give Daccord a few games as the starter? There’s a decent case to be made that the Sens would be at least a couple wins better already this year with even league-average goaltending. Is Daccord the best bet to provide that?
The argument for giving Daccord a shot is buoyed by the fact that the Sens are so far out of a playoff spot that it’s easy enough to justify a bit of experimentation. If Daccord plays 10-15 games the rest of the way and performs admirably, then that’s great, another good goalie never hurt anyone. On the other hand if he struggles, it’s not like Ottawa was winning a ton of games with the other two goalies and learning a bit about his potential in the NHL is a worthwhile endeavor.
Some fans might point to the fact that the Sens’ defense has been more than a bit porous, and that expecting any goalie to succeed given the circumstances might be hoping for a bit too much. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also the fact that Murray is dead last for Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), a metric that attempts to control for the quantity, and quality of shots that goalies face. It’s not a perfect measure, but it does help us to get an idea of how much of a goalie’s performance is just the team defense around them. Murray’s -12.72 is more than three goals worse than Martin Jones’ second-worst mark of -9.55 (Högberg is third-worst at -9.51). To put this in context, Murray’s allowed nearly 13 (!) more goals than we’d expect given the shots he’s faced so far. So, again, it’s hard to find too much by the way of empirical evidence to defend Murray (or Högberg, for the matter). Daccord meanwhile, in his three appearances boasts as GSAA of +0.42. There’s that league-average goaltending we were talking about.
The argument against giving Daccord a prolonged tryout for the top spot has more to do with how the team wants to handle Murray, and whether they might fear that getting shelled would damage Daccord’s psyche long-term. Personally I don’t put much stock in the second idea: Daccord needs to play a lot more than he needs protecting at this stage of his career, but the question of what happens to Murray if he’s not the starter is a whole lot thornier. In what should not be news to almost anyone reading this column, the Sens have an internal budget that exists somewhere below the salary cap and they are likely to be faced with expensive extensions for a few of their key young players in the next couple of years (most pressingly, Brady Tkachuk). Murray has a cap hit of $6.25M for three more years after this one, but perhaps more importantly he has an escalating real-dollar cost: in 2023-2024 Murray’s base salary is slated to be $8M (!). Now that’s still a little ways away at this point, but I have a hard time believing the Sens will want to be carrying an $8M backup. It’s also not as simple as just trading him; it would take an absolutely massive sweetner for the Sens to unload him at this point in time. Forget the immediate implications of Murray regaining his form, Dorion and co. could be looking at an absolute nightmare scenario if Murray goes the whole year without getting back to something approaching acceptable play.
Personally, I don’t see an easy answer. If the Sens still had designs on the postseason, I would have no qualms about handing the reins over to Daccord: Murray just hasn’t been good enough. But this remains a season where wins and losses just aren’t quite as important as setting the team up for future success. Does that mean seeing what they have in Daccord, or is it more important to let Murray try to find his game? What says you, Sens fans?