By Allan Muir
“They’ve already figured him out,” the scout said. “Get him moving laterally and he doesn’t look so big anymore, does he?”
That bit of insight was passed along during Ben Bishop’s rookie season with the junior A Texas Tornado in 2004-05. Seemed reasonable at the time, but looking back I’m not sure if it was a bit of sandbagging from a guy who hoped the promising goaltender would slip to his team in the draft that summer (Bishop didn’t), or a shortsighted read of a kid whose 6′-7″ frame was so far removed from the model that it forced everyone to find and focus on his flaws…or else completely reevaluate their notions of the ideal netminder.
After eight years and countless knocks about his side-to-side struggles, Bishop appears to have worked out whatever kinks existed in his style. And now the Ottawa Senators, who gambled a second-round pick last season that the St. Louis Blues cast-off could shore up their nets while starter Craig Anderson was injured, might have the deepest pool of goaltending talent in the league…and a brewing controversy to go with it.
Ever since he was lit up for five goals on 30 shots by Tampa Bay on Jan. 25, in his first start of the season, Bishop has been an imposing presence between the pipes. He’s won four of his five appearances — the lone blemish a 1-0 loss to Winnipeg — and given up just seven goals while guiding the Senators to just the second sweep of a four-game homestand in franchise history. His numbers over that span: a .955 save percentage and miserly 1.54 goals-against average.
Yeah, he’s been good.
What’s most impressive is that Bishop is shutting down the opposition under the most unforgiving circumstances. He’s starting in place of Anderson, a player who was being mentioned not only for the Vezina Trophy but the Hart before he injured his ankle. The blueline is missing defending Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson. And Bishop has no room for error with leading scorer Jason Spezza and fellow top-liner Milan Michalek relegated to the IR.
It’s been an eye-opening run for the team and Bishop. So why is all the talk centered around trading him?
Just like in St. Louis, Bishop appears to be the odd-man out.
Anderson, who skated at practice today, is the undisputed No. 1. And while he has just two years remaining on his current deal, there’s no reason to believe that the 31-year-old won’t be in Ottawa for a long time.
Then there’s Robin Lehner, the goalie of the future. The 2009 second-rounder has yet to establish himself at the NHL level, but he has nothing left to prove in the AHL. He leads that league with a .938 save percentage and is third with a 2.12 GAA. And he’s rung up those numbers for a Binghamton squad that’s seen its roster ravaged by call-ups to Ottawa.
Here’s the key to the situation: Lehner has one more year left on his entry-level deal. Leaving him in Bingo for 2013-14 is an invitation for him to bolt back to Sweden at the end of that season.
The Sens can’t have that.
Lehner needs to be shown that he matters, that his time is coming. And that means he has to be given a chance to play in Ottawa, even in a backup role.
There’s an argument to be made that Bishop is a more comfortable fit in that slot. So why take a chance on Lehner’s ability to adapt to the next level when you already have a sure thing stealing games by stopping 44 of 45 shots like he did Monday night against Montreal?
It’s all comes down to asset management. Lehner, for all his minor league heroics, wouldn’t generate a significant return on the trade market. But a goalie with some skins on the wall is a different matter. Remember the ransom that Tampa Bay paid for oversized Nashville backup Anders Lindback last summer? Two second rounders and a third. If Ottawa GM Bryan Murray can haul in that kind of booty from a team in transition between the pipes (Columbus, New Jersey), he’d be crazy not to do it.
Murray is in no hurry to make that decision, but with Anderson’s return on the horizon, it’s only a matter of time before Bishop makes another move.
This time, it won’t be a lateral one.