Our Seven Questions series opened last week focusing on a critical approaching season for Pierre-Luc Dubois in Winnipeg and a new-look blue line in Calgary. Today, we head to Ottawa and ask a simple question: Is the goaltending healthy enough to deliver a playoff team next season?

Ottawa is in a fascinating transition period right now. Ownership and the front office has persistently guided to the fan base that a contending team is here, and yet despite some impressive prospect development over the last couple of seasons, we are still talking about a club that finished 23rd in the NHL last season. The Senators again opted to defer spending in free agency, though some of that money is surely carved out for upcoming extensions to the likes of Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson. Long story short: Ottawa is doubling down on the core of young players it has amassed.

Regardless of your confidence in Ottawa’s rebuild, one thing is certain: the team is betting just as much on a Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, and (restricted free agent) Filip Gustavsson triumvirate to deliver next year. Nothing can devastate a young team like poor goaltending, and unfortunately the Senators fought through a lot of that last season. Consider last year’s tandem.

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On the positive side of the ledger: prospect Filip Gustavsson had a great NHL debut over a nine-game stretch last season, erasing some of the stop rate concerns the club was seeing with their AHL affiliate in Belleville. Entering his ‘age-23’ season and with the loss of Joey Daccord to Seattle, the opportunity is there for Gustavsson to earn a bunch of starts.

That opportunity may present itself even faster if Matt Murray’s production sustains for another year. The Senators made a sizable bet on Murray a season ago, signing him to a $25 million deal and contractually entrenching him into a starter role. Ottawa was also trying to buy low on a player whose numbers sank in a contract season.

One year does not define a contract, but that doesn’t make year one any less spooky. Ottawa’s goaltenders may have the unenviable task of playing behind a very young and, in some cases, immature defensive group, but adjusting for the shot quality faced does not paint a better picture. We assess Murray was 15 goals worse than expected based on the shot profile he faced last year; add Marcus Hogberg into that group, and you are 27-goals underwater. Said another way: if the Senators had erased 27-goals from the record last season, bringing the team’s goaltending production to league average levels, the team would have finished minus-7 in goals over the course of the season.

Another team that finished minus-7 goals over the course of the season? The Montreal Canadiens, who fell short of the Stanley Cup by three games.

I don’t want to entirely discount the net effect the Senators skating group had on the goaltenders last season. Ottawa’s goaltending was deeply underwhelming, but it’s also true they faced a difficult shot profile relative to most of their peers. If we break out defensive measures by game state (expected goals; shot volume faced adjusted for the quality of those shots), we see the pressure manifested at every level:

  • 5-on-5 expected goals against: 2.5, 24th in the NHL
  • Shorthanded expected goals against: 5.6, 22nd in the NHL
  • 3-on-3 expected goals against: 7.0, 19th in the NHL

All of the goaltending mistakes aside, this sort of defensive play is untenable – such a heavy volume of shooting from the low slot and interior is a recipe for disaster. And in the case of Ottawa, the team struggled defending the heart of the net. Moreover, they were turnover machines in the defensive third:

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We do see quality goaltenders manage through otherwise poor defensive teams from time to time – New York’s Henrik Lundqvist was notorious for bailing his defensive groups out and more recently, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck has made an art of it.

Perhaps Murray is prepared for the bounce-back season Ottawa wanted to see last year, or perhaps a developing goaltender like Gustavsson pushes his way into more starts. Whatever ends up happening, I suspect the leash on the Ottawa goaltenders this season will be short: a front office wagering so aggressively on a lower budget draft-and-develop strategy can ill afford substandard goaltending underpinning it.

Doubly so when ownership believes it’s primed for Stanley Cup contention in short order!

Data via Evolving Hockey, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, HockeyViz