Craig Anderson became the best goalie in Ottawa Senators history so gradually, you may not have noticed until now.
You definitely noticed when he put up a 47-save, 65 minute shutout against the Maple Leafs in his first game as a Senator, and you also noticed when he went toe-to-toe with Henrik Lundqvist for seven games in the 2012 playoffs, posting a shutout and a .933 save percentage in the process. You’ve probably also noticed how he’s 5-3 against Carey Price in the playoffs. We all noticed earlier this year when he shutout the Edmonton Oilers in his first game following the cancer diagnosis of his wife, Nicholle, and last night several media outlets noticed when he tied Patrick Lalime for most wins as a Senators goalie.
However, outside of the occasional top shelf performance, Craig Anderson has rarely been incredibly noticeable. He’s the guy who posts the 2 half of 3-2 wins and 2-1 losses. A few times a year, he’ll single-handedly win a game, but it’s far more rare when he single-handedly loses it. All told, Anderson occupies a largely ignored space within the goalie hierarchy: consistent above-averageness. Ask anyone about Anderson and they’ll all say the same thing, “Yeah, he’s a good starter, but he’s no…”, and then they’ll rattle off six or seven goalies who are better, and some who are Jonathan Quick. Anderson’s never been a starter for the USA National Team, he’s never received Vezina buzz, and he’s only won a single (albeit memorable) playoff series in his career. He just doesn’t have the extraneous signifiers of a truly elite goalie. More than anything, if you look at Anderson’s competition it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Craig Anderson is the best goalie in Senators history by default.
Ottawa’s goalie history is littered with big misses and players whose best work was done elsewhere. Pascal Leclaire, Tom Barrasso, Ben Bishop, Alex Auld, Robin Lehner, and Mike Brodeur all make up a Who’s Who of goalies about which you can say “Oh yeah, that guy played for the Sens once”. Among goalies with more than 100 games with the Sens, Damian Rhodes and Ron Tugnutt were a fun tandem with fun names, but the games the Sens won with them were generally in spite of them, not because of them (Rhodes: .902 sv%, Tugnutt: .906 sv%). Brian Elliot and Martin Gerber were even worse than Tugnutt and Rhodes, and while Ray Emery showed flashes of brilliance, he more often showed flashes of immaturity and could only post a .910 sv% on some of the most stacked Senators teams in franchise history. Anderson and Lalime are the only other goalies with more than 100 games played for the Senators and now that Anderson has the most wins and a better sv.%, I guess we’re done here. Craig Anderson is the best goalie in Senators history and he did it by never being bad or young enough to be traded.
This line of analysis, while snappy and factual in a way that Vox could only dream of, does Craig Anderson’s excellence (that’s right, I said excellence) a serious disservice. To understand how excellent Craig Anderson has been, you have to go deeper than his HockeyDB page.
Look at those numbers season by season and here is the conclusion you draw: Craig Anderson can be excellent when he doesn’t play very much, but he can’t keep a high level over the course of a full season. He hasn’t even touched the Senators gold standard for goaltending consistency: Dominik Hasek posting a .925 sv% in 43 games in 2005-06. Here’s the thing: if you look at his play on a game to game basis, Craig Anderson has actually out-performed Dominik Hasek several times.
Check out those HockeyDB numbers again. Even though Craig Anderson has been on some garbage Senators teams, he’s never failed to put up a points percentage greater than 50% over the course of a season. No matter how bad the Sens have been, Craig Anderson always gets them more points than they give away. Also, Craig Anderson has a .933 sv% in the playoffs. He’s been at his best when the pressure is highest. ALSO also, Anderson putting up a .941 sv% in 24 games in 2012-13 means he was performing like The Hamburglar before Andrew Hammond even conceived of purloining his first ham. Even the cloud of Anderson’s injury history has its own, largely ignored silver lining which is that he always seems to come back from long layoffs so sharp that it’s as if he never left. After Hamburglar Fever died down in 2015, Anderson entered as the starting goaltender down 0-2 in the series and promptly posted a .977 sv% for the next 4 games. Is there any doubt Ottawa would have beaten the Habs in the playoffs for a second time if Anderson had been starting since Game 1?
But wait, I’M NOT DONE YET! Not only are Craig Anderson’s streaks of peak performance more impressive than any other Sens goalie you could care to name, his play at 5-on-5 puts him among the best goalies of the past 5 years1.
Take a hard look at that table. Look at the names on it. The last five Vezina winners are on that list, and since 2012, Craig Anderson has been better than three of them at even strength. For this, he has finished fourth in Vezina voting one time in 2013.
Anderson is so much more than the best Sens goalie; he’s one of the best goalies of his era and no one cares.
Perhaps this is a function of Craig Anderson’s unconventional journey to the top. Anderson was drafted twice, and was bounced between the AHL and backup duties for eight years before he even got a shot at a starter’s job. Then after flaming out in Colorado during his second year as a starter (a year following one which saw him play in 71 regular season games), he saw himself get a shot with his fifth career NHL team at the age of 29. By the time he arrived in Ottawa, all I knew about Craig Anderson was that time he put up a 51 save shutout in that one playoff game where San Jose scored on themselves in overtime, and I also knew that he wasn’t Brian Elliot and was therefore an extremely welcome sight. Things I would find out later is that Anderson is occasionally injury prone, and that he likes Corvettes and The Punisher. This is not the narrative with which the sport of hockey anoints its great ones.
Screw that. I’m anointing him now. He’s one of the great goalies of his day who has made his bones getting a bunch of teams farther than they had any right to get, and he did it by putting in work at the NHL and AHL levels for more than a decade. Anderson’s story is one of persistence, one Ottawa has not adequately appreciated to this point.
If the Sens keep playing hockey deep into this spring, everyone will notice that Craig Anderson is a major reason why. It would behoove us all to not act at all surprised when it happens.
1. Ok, so I’m sample hacking a little bit here by only using 5-on-5 save percentage, but this is what we know to be true: 5-on-4 save percentage is much less repeatable than 5-on-5 save percentage. Therefore, 5-on-5 save percentage is considered a much better indicator of goalie talent than all situations save percentage. A goalie has much more influence over their own save percentage at even strength vs. on the powerplay. My point still stands. There are great goaltenders on that list and Craig Anderson is better than almost all of them. ↩