Robin Lehner should be starting for the Ottawa Senators on opening night
Craig Anderson hasn't played a competitive game in almost nine months, so he can't be expected to be in mid-season form to start the season. Given the importance of every single point in a lockout-shortened season, Robin Lehner should be Ottawa's starting goaltender on opening night.
With the NHL set to have a 48 game season over the course of under 100 days, not only will all the games mean a little bit more but they will be played in a shorter time span. The original schedule was going to have the Senators play 82 games over 185 days, which equals one game every 2.25 days. The new schedule will have the Senators playing about once every two days. This is roughly equivalent to an extra game every 18 days.
An 82 game schedule is over 70% longer than a 48-game one. This means starting 3-6-1 is similar to a 5-10-2 start in a full season. It will be obviously much more difficult to turn around a slow start.
Which brings us to Craig Anderson. He did not play overseas during the NHL lockout and thus his last competitive game was Game 7 against the New York Rangers on 26 April 2012. By the time the season starts, it will be almost nine months since that game. Of course, Henrik Lundqvist hasn't played since late May but the Connecticut Whale don't have a Robin Lehner and Anderson is no Lundqvist, playoff series notwithstanding.
Last year, Anderson posted save percentages of 88.1%, 90.3% and 90.7% in the first three months of the season, all below par for an average NHL goaltender. In the 2010-2011 season, he posted 90.7%, 93.9% and and 89.1%. In 2009-2010, he had 93.9%, 89.7% and 90.2%. You would have to go back to go back to 2008-2009 to find a year where Anderson started well, with save percentage of 91.8%, 95.9% and 92.0%.
Now this could be just random noise and mean nothing. However, it is possible that perhaps Anderson is simply a slow starter, and takes a few months to get into his top form. A training camp of less than one week will do nothing to help that situation.
Given the increased importance of every game this season, it makes a lot more sense to go with Robin Lehner to start the season. He has a save percentage of 94.4% keeping Binghamton near the top of the AHL standings despite frequently being badly outshot.
Lehner will get an invite to training camp but his chances of staying up in the NHL are low. Unlike Anderson (and Ben Bishop), Lehner has a two-way contract. Paying Lehner his NHL salary of $900,000 instead of $67,500 for two weeks would cost Eugene Melnyk around an extra $70,000. It does seem like small change, but there is always the matter of perceptions. Craig Anderson played very well for Ottawa in the last half of the season and in the playoffs. He would not take too kindly to being bumped for a rookie. The other option would be to play Bishop. He hasn't done quite as spectacularly as Lehner, but has stopped 92.8% of shots in the AHL this season.
Murray has hinted that the club will play whichever player gives them the best chance to win, but it would be an unprecedentedly bold move to put in Lehner should the club struggle. By sitting Anderson for a rookie, Paul MacLean and Bryan Murray will get virtually all the blame should Lehner falter.
For the first game of the season, if one wants to pick the goaltender that will give you the best chance to win on that night, it has to be Robin Lehner.