Unexpected, Unheralded Consistency: Craig Anderson's legacy with the Ottawa Senators

Andy was almost never a consistent starter. The Sens almost never had a consistent starter. They were each other's biggest exception.

Unexpected, Unheralded Consistency: Craig Anderson's legacy with the Ottawa Senators
Photo by Austin Loveing / Unsplash

Outside of a single season in Colorado, Craig Anderson was not a consistent NHL starter. Besides the oft-maligned Patrick Lalime, the Ottawa Senators never had a consistent NHL starter. Somehow, they forged an unlikely legacy together.

Andy becoming an NHL goalie at all is a story of defying the odds. Growing up in communities within a stone's throw of Chicago (his birthplace, Park Ridge, is adjacent to O'Hare Airport), he graduated from Barrington High School in Barrington, IL in 1999, the same year he started playing major junior for the OHL's Guelph Storm. He was added partway through the year to be the backup to the previous year's Memorial Cup MVP, Chris Madden. His 21-game audition was enough to earn him the 77th-overall selection by the Calgary Flames that year—who, incidentally, actually drafted Craig Andersson, since Andy started adding an extra S to his last name for fun after playing at a tournament in Sweden. The Flames never signed him though, and so it was his hometown Blackhawks, drafting him as a 20-year-old overager in 2001, who gave him a real shot. (And forced him to start using the legal spelling of his last name when he signed his first pro contract.)

Andy's pro career started as a backup to Michael Leighton in the AHL. He was only thrust into his first NHL action because both Leighton and Steve Passmore were injured in 2002-03, and All-Star Jocelyn Thibault (yes, he was an all-star that year) had a rare couple hiccups. Andy finished that season 0-3-2, with a 4.00 GAA and an .856 save percentage. Despite those less-than-impressive numbers, he got a longer NHL audition the next year, going 6-14-0, 2.86, .905. To give you an idea of how bad the Blackhawks were that year, his wins, GAA, and save percentage were 1st (tied with Leighton), 1st, and 2nd (behind Thibault) on the team. That's right: their winningest goalies had 6 wins apiece.

2004-05 brought the lockout, and Anderson should've been able to prove his mettle in the AHL as a full-timer – except injuries limited him to 15 games. Possibly the best chance to cement his pro career was wiped out by an untimely injury. 2005-06 saw the Blackhawks running Nikolai Khabibulin as their starter, and Andy was waived three times, being claimed first by the Bruins from Chicago, then by the Blues from Boston, and then back to Chicago from St. Louis. He didn't play any games for those other teams. The 'Hawks were happy to trade him to Florida for a 6th-round pick two years in the future, who wanted another option behind Roberto Luongo. Luongo had logged an outrageous 75 games that season due to unreliable play from Jamie McLennan.

Andy's time in Florida was noteworthy. He spent plenty of time in the AHL and then as Tomas Vokoun's backup, but he also posted a .929 in 61 games across 3 seasons. He also held a brief NHL record, making 53 saves in a shutout, though Mike Smith broke that record later the same year. It was good enough to earn him a two-year contract with the Avalanche. His first season with Colorado was an unqualified success. He seized the starters job and backstopped them to a playoff spot. He became (I think) the only goalie to single-handedly win a playoff game, making 51 saves in a 1-0 OT victory where the game-winner was Dan Boyle firing it into his own net. Just a year later, though, he struggled, lost his job back to Peter Budaj, and was swapped at the deadline with Brian Elliott to Ottawa.

Now, Ottawa was an interesting landing spot for Andy, since the lack of a franchise goalie was always a sticking point for the Sens at that moment in the team's history. You could argue Lalime was a bonafide stopper, but a couple of noteworthy playoff meltdowns led to him being forced out of town. Other than Lalime, no one came close to the role. The Rhodes–Tugnutt platoon was good, but that didn't stop the Sens from going after Tom Barrasso. Names like Martin Prusek were bandied about as goalies of the future. Dominik Hasek’s adductor couldn't hold together for a single year, and other answers like Ray Emery and Martin Gerber and Pascal Leclaire weren't consistently dependable. Elliott was the next goalie of the future thrust into action, only to falter and end up unceremoniously dumped in an exchange of underperforming goalies.

So a guy with an up-and-down career and one year as a starter joined a team with a rocky history of goalies and one for-sure starter in franchise history. Remarkably, Anderson went on to become the franchise leader in nearly every goalie stat worth counting. Some part of it still doesn't make sense now, looking back on it. He was nearly 30 by the time the Sens acquired him, and had a couple seasons of NHL greatness but many of mediocrity and lots of time bouncing around the minors. The Sens weren't particularly good and weren't going to be good anytime soon. And yet somehow the two unlikely partners forged an excellent long-term match.

Most fans remember Andy's first game in Ottawa, a 47-save shutout of the Leafs. His .939 sv% over 19 games earned him a four-year extension, which felt hefty for a guy who'd had such a short audition – and for a team with Robin Lehner waiting in the wings. Yet he outlasted both Robin Lehner and then Ben Bishop in Ottawa, despite being significantly older than each. (He also may turn out to have lasted longer than either of them in the league.) Andy missed lots of time from the team, for reasons ranging from the comical (cutting his hand while separating frozen chicken breasts) to the sombre (his wife Nicholle's throat cancer diagnosis). And yet, he seemed to always stay at the top of his game. He was the goalie who came back from injury to nearly wrestle ​their 2012 first-round series from the high-powered Rangers. He led them past Montreal in the 2013 domination. He took over from the Hamburglar in the 2015 playoffs and nearly stole that series for the Sens with a 0.97 GAA and .972 save percentage. He returned from his personal leave to play in the 2017 playoffs, bringing the Sens within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals. That year the Sens' strategy could be boiled down to: Erik Karlsson dominates when he's on the ice, and Anderson stops everything when Karlsson's off the ice. That it nearly worked is a testament to Anderson's excellence. His numbers faded a bit over his last two years as a Senator, but it's easy to see in retrospect, given his decent numbers in Buffalo, he would've been a far better choice going into 2021 than Matt Murray and Marcus Högberg.

It's hard to overstate Andy's importance to the Sens franchise. He's the all-time goalie leader in games played (435), wins (202), minutes (24,840), shots faced (13,621), and save percentage (.914), and his 28 shutouts are two behind Lalime (who played behind much, much better Sens teams). As a fun side note, his 11 points are also the most by any Sens goalie. He's the franchise leader in playoff wins (21, tied with Lalime), playoff shots faced (1292), and save percentage (.928, ignoring Prusek's .933 in 40 min of total playoff time). From the point of view of memorable moments, not much will outweigh his emotional return to shut out Edmonton after announcing Nicholle had cancer (a game I will always feel blessed to have attended in-person.

Despite all this, his winning the Masterton Trophy in 2017 was the only real league-wide recognition he got for his 9 and a bit seasons in Ottawa. He finished 4th in Vezina voting in 2014, and 5th in all-star voting that same year. That's it. He didn't join a single Team USA that whole time. It goes to show that his consistency in Ottawa wasn't only unexpected, it went largely unheralded. Many outside Ottawa may be surprised to see him retire a Senator, but to us, it's obvious. Anywhere else, he was inconsistent. Any other goalie in Ottawa was inconsistent. Yet for parts of 10 seasons in Ottawa, he was quietly good, and regularly great. Retiring a Senator is another well-deserved acknowledgement that, though he may not have been recognized league-wide, to Sens fans, he's the undisputed franchise goalie.

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