Friday, October 19, 2007

With Emery expected to, finally, make his first start of the young NHL season tomorrow night against the Florida Panthers, it seemed an opportune time to weigh in on the Senators' goaltending situation. Note I fail to use the terms controversy, or dilemma, or problem, for presence of two capable Senators netminders is hardly something to fret over. But while the situation is nothing but win-win from a fan's perspective, regardless of whether one goaltender gets the majority of the starts, they platoon, or one is traded, these possibilities do present some interesting consequences.

It is impossible to know which solution is best, of course, until Emery suits up for his first full game since game five of the Stanley Cup Final, a game which is distant in the memories of some but far too clear in the minds of others. And for still others, the 50-some preceding games in which Emery lifted this team from its worst slump in reason memory to the best second-half record in the NHL, matters far more. And so it should.

But with only a period of action in the near-five months since that final game, due to recuperation from an off-season surgery to repair a wrist he injured just prior to his rescuing of the team, Martin Gerber was offered the opportunity to step up in Emery's absence, and did not disappoint. Even rookie netminder Brian Elliott, fresh out of college, shone in his NHL debut against Atlanta, putting to rest any fears about the state of the Senators goaltending future.

Instead, it is the goaltending present that is far more unclear. Elliott was the evident odd-man out, and was demoted to Binghamton upon Emery's decision to make himself available to the Senators again last week. While the Senators have seen little action since the decision was announced, the little time to display results on the ice has left plenty of time to analyse potential results. While Gerber started last night's game against Montreal and it is only logical that Emery start tomorrow against Florida, how the starts play out afterward is anyone's guess. And so, an outline of potential solutions, evidently working off the assumption that both goaltenders play at their expected level:

Ray Emery gets the majority of the starts; Gerber is the backup.

Returning to status quo, the status quo which earned the Senators a 105-point season and the franchise's first ever berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. This solution is certainly the easiest to accept. Emery earned his starter's position by leading this team from an uncharacteristic early season slump, to a strong finish. The Senators' rise can be tracked to the exact moment that Ray Emery became this team's starting goaltender - November 15, 2006, in a win against the Buffalo Sabres. He earned the position with his 15-game march to the Stanley Cup finals. While he was rarely our best player, he was never our worst, and turned in at least one jaw-dropping game per round to secure the team a quick pass to the finals. He was stellar in the first two games against Anaheim, and while his performance in the final games left much to be desired, evidently the coaching staff felt he was more suited to the task than Gerber. Emery has the confidence of Senators GM Bryan Murray, who opted to play him from that November 15th marker onward, at every possible opportunity. He was re-upped with a three year contract this summer by Murray at market value, a clear indication that Murray saw Emery in the future plans of the team. It is an unspoken rule that you should never lose your position due to injury, regardless of how well your replacement plays. If this holds true and Emery performs at the level of last season, he will be the starter, despite how well (or poorly) Gerber may play.

While Gerber has played exceptionally to start the season, he lost his starting job in the Fall of 2006 and, until Emery does something to lose it, he cannot gain it back. Still, his contract does not present a problem until next season, and Gerber has far more experience than Glass, therefore the best solution may be to keep him on the bench in case of further injury to Emery. Gerber may take exception with being sidelined without consideration to his play, of course, but has traditionally been willing to take one for the team, as it were, even if he is personally unsatisfied.

Emery and Gerber split the starts, more or less 50/50.

In some senses this is the most logical, yet it might leave both netminders disgruntled. Neither is interested in being a backup, of course, but both might see a platoon system as equally unsatisfactory. While Senators coach John Paddock will likely run with this strategy for at least the next few games, leading us into the first week or two of February, a favourite will emerge and we will see one of the other solutions begin to take hold.

Martin Gerber gets the majority of the starts; Emery is the backup.

Evidently Emery's absence makes this statement a bit hairy, but the facts are simple - the Senators are the best team in the league at present. They have been lead to a 7-1 start by a consistently stellar Martin Gerber, who has lost a sole game in regulation in all of 2007. Gerber leads the NHL in wins, and is among the leaders in goals against average and save percentage. According to Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, Gerber has been the best player on the team so far this season (his majesty excluded, we assume). While it may not be particularly "fair" for Emery to lose his starting job because of injury, the fact remains, hockey is about wins. And no goaltender is more reliable in securing wins at present, than Martin Gerber. With the absence of Emery and Gerber's shaky reputation gained from his poor start last season, it would have been entirely understandable if Gerber had yet again crumbled under the pressure of being "the man" in a hockey city. It wouldn't have been acceptable or tolerable, of course, but it would be, on some level, expected. Instead, he took the opportunity given to him and seems to have put the April 2006-December 2006 stretch of injury, illness, lack of confidence, bad luck, and downright mediocrity behind him. He is finally performing like the goaltender the Senators expected when they signed him to a 3-year deal in the summer of 2006, and, in some roundabout way, is simply reclaiming the starter's job that was his in the first place.

Start Emery, trade Gerber

If Emery performs well over the next few weeks, this could very well come to pass. Since Murray makes the decisions on team management, and not Paddock, his preference of Emery over Gerber will play a huge role. While teams will give their current netminding solutions a little more time to work themselves out, a particularly bad slump or perhaps an injury could lead to a market for Gerber opening up. He has performed well enough as an audition of sorts, to prove his worth as an NHL starter again. He might even be acquired for a valuable asset, if he maintains his standard of play in the starts he will get. While there is no rush on this solution, it would not be at all surprising to see it come to pass.

Start Gerber, trade Emery

The real argument to be made here is simply that Emery commands more trade value than Gerber. He is seven years younger, and has not even approached his potential. He has three years remaining on his contract. He has shown consistency at the NHL level and is not prone to streakiness like Gerber. He might even draw some fans in, presenting value as a marketing tool. This will likely never happen mind, with the relationships Emery has with Ottawa stars, and with the unpredictabililty of Gerber as a long-term netminding solution.

While it's interesting to mull over the possibilities, the real solution is quite simple - whoever plays best, will be the starter. Whoever gives the team the best chance to win, he will be given the opportunity to do so. And unless one of them does a 180, both Emery and Gerber are up to the task. No, it isn't a controversy. It's a godsend.


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