The Goaltender of the Future: Is He Here?
As the rebuild enters the next phase, a number of positions are starting to solidify. So what do the Sens have in terms of goaltending and is the goaltender of the future already here?
As the last few seasons have progressed, the Ottawa Senators have gone from total tear down to rebuild to whatever this next phase of the rebuild is. As we go, we’re starting to see each position take shape and Pierre Dorion’s vision coming to life. We have Josh Norris, Tim Stützle and Shane Pinto as three excellent young players to give the Sens a pretty deep look at centre. On left wing, Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton are already here while Roby Järventie is getting reps in the AHL. With the depth at centre, we can likely pencil Ridly Greig on that left side as well. On the right, after Drake Batherson, things are looking a bit bleak but Egor Sokolov is looking promising while the option for free agency or trade can help bolster that position.
On the back end, the left side is looking particularly solid with Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson and we’ve all breathed some relief seeing both Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson begin to round out into possible options on the right.
Then we get to the goal. With Matt Murray’s best playing days likely behind him and Anton Forsberg’s career backup status, it’s likely that neither will be a long term option for Ottawa between the pipes. Filip Gustavsson is here, and he’s performed admirably in his early NHL career while Mads Søgaard and Kevin Mandolese are in a decent battle for consideration with Belleville. There’s also the once dark horse, now exciting prospect of Leevi Meriläinen turning into an NHL calibre goaltender.
Before we jump in, it’s important to know that as these players are young - and the goaltending position is notoriously difficult to predict - and we’ll be looking at some small sample sizes. Things very well may change in either direction.
Let’s take a look at the four current heirs to the throne and see who feels most likely to win that starting position and examine how comfortable we can really be as fans looking into the future with these goaltenders manning the cage.
Let’s start with one of the toughest pieces of information to make sense of when it comes to the goalies in Ottawa’s system. After all, each one of them played in a different junior league, and these leagues are played in three different countries. It’s so difficult to compare that it’s almost not worth it so instead of comparing, I’ll just hit you with the stats.
Playing junior in the WHL, Søgaard compiled a 40-21-6 record with the Medicine Hat Tigers which saw him post a 0.915 SV% and 2.58 GAA.
On the other side of Canada, Mandolese suited up in the QMJHL. Through four seasons with Cape Breton, he had a 86-41-8 record with a 0.900 SV% and 2.96 GAA.
Across the pond, Gustavsson’s J20 career was surprisingly mediocre for a goaltender who was the goalie of the tournament at the World Juniors. He had a 17-20-0 record with a 0.901 SV% and 2.91 GAA.
Finally, Meriläinen posted a 0.922 SV% in Finland’s J20 league as an 18 year old before joining the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, where he has a 14-4-3 record, 0.897 SV% and 3.14 GAA.
When you look at the performance of each goaltender at the AHL level, Mads Søgaard is running away with the race. His 0.919 SV% eclipses that of both Gustavsson and Mandolese who have, somewhat surprisingly, posted identical AHL career numbers with 0.894 SV%. Now, Gustavsson has started in four times the AHL games which means both that he’s had more reps at that level but also that both Søgaard and Mandolese have had less opportunity for bad games to drag their numbers down. Søgaard’s goals against average is also well above that of his counterparts - with a 2.39 compared to Gustavsson’s 3.21 and Mandolese’s 3.51.
We also know that AHL performance isn’t everything. It’s a league where the team in front of you is in constant flux due to injuries and recalls and the style of play is notably less structured than the NHL. This, in my opinion, explains the drastic difference between Gustavsson’s AHL stats and his performance thus far in Ottawa. After all, a 0.909 SV% through 20 games starting behind this Ottawa Senators team is nothing to be upset about.
From a team perspective, Søgaard has also, thus far, given his team the best chance to win. His 13-5-0 record is quite impressive, boosted by his 7-0-0 run when he joined the BSens at the end of last season.
Unfortunately, as we know, Meriläinen hasn’t played a game in the AHL yet so we can’t include him in this analysis.
Thanks to the work of Byron Bader, we can have a very interesting look into the future of skaters and goaltenders alike, using his NHL Probabilities work on Hockey Prospecting.
First, let’s take a look at Gustavsson, who’s the oldest and furthest along in his development.
Interestingly, the Sens acquired Gustavsson during his D2 season, which was when his performance in the J20 SuperElit and SHL made him look like he was on track to be an impressive goaltender.
Based on Bader’s database, he uses similar production development patterns to give us an idea of comparable goaltenders - D0 being those who he looked most like in his draft year, Full Comps being those who he looks most like after at least three years. He’s seeing Mikko Koskinen, Laurent Brossoit, Kevin Weekes, Tristan Jarry and Norm Maracle as the closest comparables for Gustavsson at this point. What that tells us is we have an NHLer goaltender here. The question is if he can be a starter, the 1B in a tandem or a backup, as all of those profiles exist in Bader’s list of comparable goaltenders.
The item of most concern using Bader’s model is that Gustavsson’s probability of becoming an NHLer has dropped the last two seasons, despite these being the seasons where Gustavsson has spent some time in the NHL. What that tells me is his age combined with his poor AHL performance and mediocre NHL performance - relative to bonafide starters - is making Bader’s model question the ceiling of this player.
Next, in order of age, is Mandolese, who is a whopping four months older than his Danish teammate.
At 21, Mandolese is just starting to get to a place where we’ll have an idea of what he can become and his Full Comps are very similar to that of Gustavsson. I find this fascinating because I think if you polled a group of Sens fans, they wouldn’t put Mandolese in the same sentence as Gustavsson in terms of the future of this team.
That being said, Bader’s model sees Mandolese as a goaltender with only a slightly better probability of NHLer status at 31% relative to Gustavsson’s 27%.
Next, the Great Dane™.
Here’s where things get interesting. According to Bader’s model, Søgaard has had a pretty steady likelihood of becoming an NHLer, hovering in the mid 40% range since his draft year. The incredibly intriguing thing for Søgaard’s Full Comps is that if he can turn into a goaltender like Jose Theodore, Tuukka Rask or Igor Shesterkin, we’re in for a darn treat.
With plenty of time for improvement, Meriläinen currently isn’t in the conversation for the future starter if you only look at Bader’s model. His comparables, if this were NHL 22, would be labeled as “backup” or “fringe starter”. At just 19 years old, and in his first season in North America, Meriläinen’s save percentage has him ranked 14th in the OHL this season while his GAA of 3.14 is 11th. Not bad for a rookie so there’s some hope here that his probabilities rise in the next season or two.
Is He Here?
While goaltenders are, once again, notoriously difficult to predict, I say he’s here and his name is Mads.
At 21 years old, Søgaard has easily been the most impressive at the AHL level while his development curve looks similar to more elite starters than any of his competition for the crease.
Similar to Rask, he’ll need to take quite the leap soon in order to achieve elite starter status but if there’s any goaltender in the system I believe is capable of this, it’s the 6’7” Great Dane™.
The hype train has left the station.