Weekly Question: Justice for Högberg?

Did Hoggy get a fair shot in Ottawa?

A lot has happened to the Ottawa Senators since they drafted Marcus Högberg in the summer of 2013. Back then Craig Anderson—still at the top of his game—held down the crease while we awaited the future in the form of Robin Lehner (confidently enough so that the Sens traded away Ben Bishop!). Two years after that, Andrew Hammond surpassed Robin Lehner on the depth chart while almost singlehandedly dragging the Sens to the postseason. Yet another two years later, Mike Condon stepped in for Andy and kept Ottawa’s playoff hopes alive while Craig attended to his family in need. Over the years Ottawa signed Matt O’Connor, drafted Joey Daccord, Jordan Hollett, Kevin Mandolese, Mads Søgaard, and Leevi Merilaïnen; and traded for Filip Gustavsson in 2018. All the while, Marcus Högberg spent eight long years waiting in the wings in Ottawa for his time as the Senators’ number one netminder.

As of today Marcus Högberg has about  half of an NHL season (42 games) under his belt over parts of three seasons with Ottawa, and as of this summer Högberg’s tenure as a Senator will come to an end. Going by save percentage (89.4), goals against average (3.39), and goals saved above average (-9.31), the Senators can justify their choice to non-tender the arbitration eligible restricted free agent. For those of us who followed Högberg from the SHL to the AHL and watched every minute of his play in Ottawa, however, this may still feel hasty no matter how bleak those numbers look on the screen. Keep in mind just how excited we felt about Hoggy not that long ago.

I think you can make arguments both in defence of moving on from Högberg and proposing that perhaps the organization cut bait too soon. Looking at Ottawa’s two goalies currently on NHL contracts, Matt Murray drafted one year prior to Högberg has a world of professional experience (226 NHL games) with numbers as erratic as ever, year over year. Anton Forsberg drafted two years prior to Högberg, has played 56 games in the NHL and has also struggled to find consistency with four different NHL teams.

Looking around the current NHL playoffs, you could argue that Ottawa gave up too soon on previous draftees such as Lehner and Chris Dreidger and that the team runs the risk of repeating the same mistake with Högberg. Most pragmatic Sens fans, however, will tell you that Ottawa and Högberg have every reason to mutually part ways and neither will end up the worse off for it. So let’s take a look at the factors informing this decision.

In my mind I immediately think about the change of regime including management, scouting, and coaching over the past eight years in Ottawa and conject that at this point no one behind the scenes considers Högberg “their guy” anymore. Moreover, of the five younger goalies in the system, I imagine just about all of them have a “their guy” endorsement from someone in management. And, of course, while Högberg occasionally made the types of highlight reel saves and sequences that pass our eye test, the numbers do him no favours.

To what extent though, do we consider the constant re-structuring of management and coaching (including a new goalie coach this season (after Högberg had likely already sealed his own fate)) and admit this evidence in Högberg’s defence? Speaking of defence, Högberg played behind a pretty terrible example of it. He also played most of two if his “prove-it” years during the pandemic. In  a lot of ways, Högberg had a rather trial-by-fire audition for the permanent starting job in Ottawa. Alas, younger netminders played under similar circumstances in Ottawa and thrived, such as Gustavsson this season.

As Spencer mentioned yesterday, the Senators have a complicated puzzle to sort out in the crease and the upcoming expansion draft only further complicates matters (along with the loss of Ottawa’s ECHL affiliate in Brampton and a place to get a goalie prospect some minutes). Sooner or later, someone had to go, and at this stage of the rebuild, we’ll have to get more accustomed to these difficult decisions (as we saw on the blueline with the departures of Max Lajoie, Christian Jaros, and Christian Wolanin). Our optimism about Ottawa’s prospects need give way eventually to the pragmatism that only the best will make the cut if this team wants to take the next step next season.

So how do you feel? Do you still trust the process? Have you come to terms with Högberg’s departure? Do you feel anxious about the expansion draft? Do you still lament the Matt Murray trade-and-sign or the Anton Forsberg claim-and-sign? Did the Sens give up too soon on Hoggy (or maybe another favourite prospect of yours)? Let us know!

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