Ottawa Does Lockout Goaltending Controversies

In case you missed it, Ben Bishop is not very good.

At least that is the story his unsightly peripherals tell in less than 120 minutes of AHL action.

The numbers too easily lend themselves for use by the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ crowd. As a collective, we are all guilty of doing it from time-to-time. Overrating a prospect because of an unsustainable hot streak, and in this case the opposite. Like it or not, the longer the lockout goes, the more a Lehner vs. Bishop goaltending controversy functions as a story that bloggers, journalists, radio hosts and armchair GMs can get a lot of mileage out of.

When Bishop was acquired by the Ottawa Senators in late February, we knew the organization was unavoidably going to reach a point in which it would need to make a decision between the two. I just didn't think that discussion would begin already. I should have known better.

From yesterday’s Ottawa Sun:

"Ben Bishop has a one-way contract, but he’s not as good as Robin Lehner, and with a shortened season teams can’t afford to go with anything less than their best.

On Saturday, Bishop was Binghamton’s goalie of record in a 4-2 loss. He is now 0-2 with a 4.04 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. To this point, Lehner has probably been the B-Sens’ top player. He is 4-2 with a 1.99 GAA and .933 save percentage."

Granted, there is some context that helps explain why Bishop has been off.  

A few weeks ago, Binghamton head coach Luke Richardson had this to say about Bishop’s return during his October 23rd appearance on Team 1200’s The Drive:

“Ben is working hard and we worked him out real hard on Saturday morning to get ready and game ready. Unfortunately, he got sick and I don’t know if he got strep throat or what, but he’s been on antibiotics for the last couple of days. We had to send him home again this morning from practice to keep him away from the guys and let the antibiotics kick in. He may be back on the ice tomorrow but unfortunately, he’s had a tough year – obviously waiting for the lockout to finish and then finally getting a contract done to come down to join us. And just when he was peaking and getting into some good game shape, he hit the wall with some kind of virus.”

There is also the issue of using a small sample size to differentiate between the two goaltenders.

Lehner’s numbers are pretty damn impressive. In fact, only nine AHL goaltenders currently have better goals against averages than Ottawa’s highly regarded goaltending prospect. But here’s the rub, that list of nine goaltenders is headlined by the likes of Barry Brust, Petr Mrazek, Dov Grumet-Morris, Jussi Rynnas, Curtis McElhinney, Martin Jones, Jeff Frazee, Danny Taylor and Dan Ellis – an embarrassment of goaltending talent that also includes two former members of the Senators organization.

In a brief audition, Lehner more than held his own in his cup of coffee with Ottawa last season. When Craig Anderson suffered a Pavol Demitra for Christer Olsson Pierre Gauthier’esque brainfart and that led to him deciding that it would be a great idea to separate frozen chicken with an icepick, Lehner stepped up to the plate to stem the tide in Anderson’s absence. In four consecutive starts he strung together a 2-2-0 record with a 2.01 GAA and a save percentage of .938; including one otherworldly shutout performance over the Boston Bruins –a feat that is more impressive when you remember that the Bruins are a team that has had its way with the Senators in the same way that Zdeno Chara once had his way with Bryan McCabe.

Context and small sample size aside, there is some truth to what Brennan is saying. I'm not going to argue Lehner hasn't been the better of the two, he clearly has thus far.

Although even if he continues to be, barring a significant injury to Craig Anderson, he would still only be relegated to backup duty with the big club. Even if you concur with Brennan in believing that in a shortened season, coaches need to ice the best team to give themselves the best opportunity to win on a nightly basis, there remains merit to weighing that winning against all costs mentality with what is best for Lehner’s development.

In his case, he’s a goaltender whose has only played in 62 of Binghamton’s 152 games over the past two seasons. Albeit, his appearance in 40.8-percent of Binghamton’s games over these two years would be higher if not for a handful of injury recalls. But this lack of games underscore a very important point, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies over the past two seasons. For a goalie who many are projecting to be the eventual starter as soon as next season, he needs to demonstrate that he can not only inherit a large workload – but that he can also maintain his consistency.

Assuming that the lockout reduces the number of regular season games down to 50 or 60, Lehner would be fortunate to get into more than 10 to 15 games. If that is the case, it does not take a mathematical genius to understand that with each game played by Anderson, the less Lehner plays, the smaller his win share. In other words, the smaller the win share, the more negligible the difference between Lehner and Bishop will be. Perhaps most importantly, I remain unconvinced that sitting on the bench while Anderson, a goalie who has played in more than 50 games in the past three seasons, gets the lion’s share of the workload is the best thing for Robin.

It’s a concept that is not lost on Lehner either.

In an interview with the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, he had this to say (h/t to @steffeG for the translation): 

"I take it day by day and year by year. I obviously want to play in the NHL and will keep pushing towards that, but I have matured and realized that everything takes time, and the fact that the chances to play aren’t there won’t necessarily mean you aren’t good enough."

I think it's widely accepted Bishop's ceiling is not as high as Lehner’s. Nevertheless, management and fans have celebrated his presence and what it means – the existence of depth at the position, all of the eggs are no longer in Robin's basket.

In many ways, Bishop was the antithesis of Lehner, whatever he lacked in pedigree and flash, he made up for in experience, polish and maturity. If anything, his acquisition (while maybe not entirely by design) served to create internal competition, and focus Lehner's performance.

The numbers and the soundbites certainly leave the impression that it is working.

Still the sample is small…

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