Four months ago, nobody would have believed the Ottawa Senators would sign Andrew Hammond to a three-year contract with guaranteed NHL money.
Hammond was plugging away as a goaltender with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL and struggling along with a 7-13-2 record with a 3.51 GAA and .898 save percentage. The "journeyman" label was about to be affixed to his name as it appeared as though the 27-year-old was destined to be a minor-league goalie.
“In the first half, it wasn’t something that I envisioned, but the great thing about sports – and hockey in particular – is that anything can happen," Hammond told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday. "I was given a chance to hit the refresh button a little bit when I was called up and I was able to play some of the best hockey down the stretch there,”
With both Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner injured, Hammond was thrust into NHL action in the middle of February. And he responded by posting a 20-1-2 record with a 1.79 GAA and .941 save percentage in 24 games with the Senators down the stretch and was the main catalyst in their improbable run to a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Senators believed they saw enough of Hammond during that run to offer him a three-year, one-way contract with a AAV of $1.35 million. The deal was hammered out in the past 48 hours and negotiations appeared to have progressed quickly once assistant general manager Pierre Dorion returned from the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Prague.
While he didn’t get a no-movement clause in his deal, Hammond says the one-way money was a major factor in his decision to re-sign in Ottawa.
“The way things unfolded, I thought it was something that was important for me to get," he said. "And obviously, I was really happy that Ottawa felt like I was deserving of that, too, and we could get things done before July 1st.”
““Obviously for us, Andrew came in, under difficult conditions, and showed that he was an NHL goalie,” said assistant general manager Pierre Dorion. “We felt that Andrew came in and lost one game all year. What we tried to do is do the best thing for the Ottawa Senators. He played 23 games nad he only lost once under the highest pressure. We just felt that whatever term it was, it was a guy we needed to sign.”
With Hammond now signed, the Senators have three goaltenders under contract for the long-term. In his season-ending address with the media, Bryan Murray indicated that if Hammond was re-signed, the club would trade either Anderson or Lehner during the summer. But Hammond says he wasn’t given any insight into how the goaltending situation will play out in Ottawa next season.
“They didn’t make any guarantees like that," Hammond said. "It’s something where I’m just going to go into camp with the approach that I’m going to try and play as many games as I can this year and earn as many starts as I can. What happens here over the summer – with three goaltenders – we’ll have to see what happens.”
For his part, Dorion reiterated the message from Murray that one of the goalies would be moved if Hammond re-signed. But whether that happens in the next few weeks, at the NHL Draft or at some point in October, is very much up in the air.
“There’s no timeline on it,” stated Dorion. “We could go into training camp with three (goalies). But at the present time, we haven’t really explored the trade market.”
Dorion added that Lehner – who has been sidelined after suffering a concussion on February 16 – is making progress and was working out at the team’s facility this week. The club feels that Lehner’s health won’t be an issue by the time training camp rolls around in September.
“He’ll be ready to play here – somewhere else. And he’ll stop a lot of pucks,” Dorion said.
He also added that the club believes that Craig Anderson is one of the top netminders in the league – despite battling a string of injuries in his four seasons in Ottawa.
When asked if Anderson’s injury history was a concern to the front office, Dorion said, “Simple answer? No.”
Regardless of who is his crease partner next season, Hammond says there will be no animosity or jealousy since he had terrific relationships with both Anderson and Lehner.
“They were both extremely supportive of me, the more I played. They are both just quality guys and we get along – all three of us,” added Hammond.” Obviously, I don’t know what’s coming, but we’re all professionals and we’ve learned that this is part of the game.
Since he has a fairly limited sample size in the NHL, Hammond is well aware that some critics have labelled him a flash in the pan, but he is excited about the challenge of establishing himself as a legitimate, full-time NHL netminder in 2015-16 and knows that signing a three-year contract means that even more focus will be put on him going forward.
“I’m aware that the expectations are obviously going to change now, but I’ve proven myself over the past few months that I can play at this level," he said. "It’s something that I’m more than excited about and willing to earn every day. You go in as a guy going in who is just trying to play as many games as he can, no matter what happens, you just have to keep practicing and training as if you are the No. 2 guy. I have total confidence that, if I keep that approach, there won’t be too much to worry about.”
Hammond was pulled after two games in the playoffs in which he went 0-2 with a 3.44 GAA in the Senators' first-round series against Montreal. He was replaced by Craig Anderson – who was brilliant in his four starts – but the Senators ultimately lost the series in six games. Hammond believes the playoffs were not a true reflection of where his game is at as an NHL goalie.
“I don’t think I played my best games in the playoffs, but I don’t think I was horrible either,” explained Hammond. “The biggest credit anybody can give to a goaltender is what Carey Price does: When the game speeds up around him, he just seems to stay the course and the game almost seems to slow down. I felt like I was so into playing in that environment in Montreal that I got caught up in the emotion of the game a little bit and it took away from my game. It wasn’t a distraction or anything; I think I was almost having too much fun playing that it made some of my movements speed up and as a goaltender, that opens up holes. It just takes you out of rhythm a little bit. I think that was the main reason why the playoffs unfolded like they did.”