There are a lot of things that need to change for the Sens in 2022-23 if they want to make the playoffs, and better goaltending is near the top of that list.
Over the last two seasons, the Sens have shown considerable promise at forward and on defense, but been hurt by inconsistent goaltending. In 2020-21, Matt Murray and Marcus Högberg both went cold at the beginning of the season, which contributed to the team’s awful start; in 2021-22, the same could be said of Murray and Forsberg, although both bounced back later on in the season. Now, Ottawa is heading into 2022-23 with three goaltenders on one-way contracts: Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson. Dorion still maintains that the plan is to keep all three of them in the NHL next season. But how likely is that to actually happen, and what should the team do if it doesn’t?
Why don’t teams run with 3 goaltenders?
There are a few reasons why you don’t typically see teams carry three goaltenders for more than a few weeks at a time. The extra goaltender takes up a roster spot, for one, when it’s usually preferable to keep an extra defenseman or forward. It’s also expensive to pay three guys to play for you when only one of them can play at once.
Keeping three goaltenders also makes practices difficult, because you usually want to have one goaltender in each net. It’s just a mess, and there’s truly no reason to try to do it. Maybe the Sens do actually plan on starting the season with Murray, Forsberg and Gustavsson all in the NHL, but it seems very unlikely they’d keep things that way all season long.
So, let’s take a look at what they have in each goaltender.
Of the three goaltenders on one-way contracts for 2022-23, Matt Murray is probably the one with the biggest question mark over his name. Murray has a lot of experience as an NHL starter, and probably the highest ceiling of any of the Sens’ three goaltenders: he posted a .930 save percentage in his rookie season and a .923 in his second, and won the Stanley Cup both years, as Sens fans know all too well. His playoff resume is absolutely incredible, and although he’s been inconsistent during his time as a Senator, when he’s been on his game, he’s been very good. We know that he can be a starter.
With that being said, there are three big things that make Matt Murray a less than ideal option as a starter: his massive contract, his inconsistent play, and his history with injuries.
Most starters play around 40-50 games per season, but Murray started only 20 games this year and hasn’t played more than 40 since 2018-19. He also makes $6.25M against the cap for the next two seasons, making him the fifth highest paid goaltender in the league, according to CapFriendly.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that the Sens can’t count on Murray to be healthy for a full season. It’s not his fault, but it’s just the reality of the situation. On a team with a bit more money, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem, as the team could just put him on LTIR and get cap relief. However, even under new ownership, we know the Sens are not going to just throw money at a guy who’s constantly getting injured.
I would not be at all surprised if Murray suddenly returned to form and stole a playoff series. I would also not be surprised if he never played another NHL game. And that is exactly the problem. Unfortunately, his contract status also hurts his trade value, unless the Sens would be willing to retain salary, so there isn’t really an easy solution here.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Forsberg, who randomly became good last year after several years of not being particularly good. Just last season, we saw him play a few games where he couldn’t stop a beach ball, and then flip a switch and suddenly turn into a brick wall. He’s an easy guy to root for, and after the performance he put up last year, I don’t know how you could let him leave.
We’ve seen so many Sens backups have career seasons, earn themselves long-term contracts, and immediately fall back down to earth that it’s natural for people to have reservations about Forsberg. Let’s just hope the version of him that we saw at the end of last season is the real Forsberg.
Finally, we have Gus, who was great during the COVID-shortened 2021 season, and not great in his few appearances at the NHL level in 2021-22. Once again, we have someone who could be good, or could be bad. Goaltenders are weird.
Gustavsson is a solid goaltending prospect, who could very well turn into a starter soon. He could be the goalie of the future, and for that reason it would make a lot of sense for the Sens to hold on to him. On the other hand, though, he does have a decent amount of trade value, and Ottawa does have a lot of goaltending prospects in the minor leagues right now. If Murray’s contract and health is too much of an issue and Forsberg was too good last year to give up on now, Gustavsson might be the best option in a trade.
For what it’s worth, here’s how the three goaltenders stacked up against each other this season. Forsberg was clearly the best, while Gustavsson was easily the worst. The column “impact on goal odds” comes from HockeyViz, and refers to a goaltender’s impact on the expected goals model. Basically, a very good goaltender has a negative impact on expected goals, because shots against that goaltender are much less likely to go in. By contrast, a bad goaltender will have a positive impact on those odds, because shots are more likely to go in.
At the end of the day, the problem with the Sens’s goaltending situation is that all three guys have been very inconsistent over the course of their careers. If the team only holds on to two of them and both have bad seasons, then they can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. And that could happen no matter which two they keep around. There really is no easy answer.