Thursday March 5th, 2015

Off The Draw

It was two years ago, right around this time, that Senators general manager Bryan Murray had to make a decision on the future of a promising young puckstopper.

With Craig Anderson locked in as his starter and Robin Lehner in line as the team’s goalie of the future, Murray made the fateful call to part ways with Ben Bishop, sending the pending unrestricted free agent to the Lightning for winger Cory Conacher.

“It wasn't anything about Cory Conacher and Ben Bishop,” Murray explained later. “It was, Do we keep Robin Lehner or do we keep Ben Bishop? And from the offset, we felt Robin Lehner is a guy in the future, and now is the future for him, that [he] is going to be a top-end goaltender in the NHL. So that’s why the trade was made.

“If I hadn’t traded Ben Bishop, you guys would be asking me today, ‘What the hell are you doing with three goaltenders? And who's starting tomorrow night?’

“I couldn’t have signed [Bishop] to another contract and kept Robin and Craig [Anderson].”

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That all made sense at the time. In hindsight, though, Murray might like a do-over. Bishop has established himself as one of the game’s best, earning recognition as a Vezina Trophy finalist for Tampa Bay in 2014. Meanwhile Lehner, despite years of hype and opportunity, has yet to find the consistency that would allow him to displace the 33-year-old Anderson as Ottawa’s starter. There are plenty who wonder if he ever will.

And now there’s another obstacle in Lehner’s path: 27-year-old Andrew Hammond.

No one’s ready just yet to anoint the rookie sensation as the Senators’ future, but he’s definitely their present. Seven games into his NHL career, Hammond is 6-0-1 with a .957 save percentage and a 1.35 goals-against average. It’s no stretch to say that he’s singlehandedly propelled Ottawa back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Hammond cemented his status as the Sens’ go-to guy down the stretch with another first-star performance on Wednesday night, when he stopped 35 of 36 shots to lead Ottawa to a 3–1 win over the Jets in Winnipeg.

Hammond was at his best in a first period that saw his team outshot 15–6, but still emerge with a 1–0 lead thanks in part to what may have been the best save of his burgeoning career: a right-pad stop off the stick of Andrew Ladd. The Jets’ winger was staring at a wide open net after the puck caromed off the end boards directly to him.

It was the kind of stop that makes a team believe that maybe this is its time after all.

"We have that special feeling now, and I feel it’s carrying over, game into game, where it doesn’t matter the team we are playing, we feel like we can hang in there, and play, and be successful,” Hammond said.

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Hammond got his chance between the pipes when both Anderson and Lehner were laid up with injuries. Anderson’s now healthy, but he’s not going back in net anytime soon. Not the way Hammond is playing

And Lehner? Who knows if he’ll ever suit up for the Sens again.

Hammond, who’s in the final season of a two-year, $1.4 million deal, will be a restricted free agent this summer. That puts Murray back in pretty much the same spot he was in with Bishop. Though the GM doesn’t have to worry about losing the Hamburglar for nothing, he does have to face down the three-goalie question one more time and decide who will be the odd man out.

There’s no rush. The trade deadline is in the past and there’s still a little more than a month left in the regular season—and maybe even a few games afterward—for Murray to figure out if Hammond is the future or just a flash in the pan.

But Murray is going to have to make a call. And you can bet that the Bishop trade won’t be far from his mind when he makes it.

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