Can LeClaire Be The Money Goaltender Ottawa Needs?

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Can LeClaire Be The Money Goaltender Ottawa Needs?
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Pascal LeClaire is what you call a money goaltender.  That means that he gets paid a lot and delivers when it counts.  And, he delivered in game #5 of the Ottawa Senators’ quarter-final series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.  His ability to make timely saves won the game for Ottawa, and renewed the debate over his relegation to backup goaltender duty among pundits and fans alike.  He also started game #6, and put in another solid performance in a losing cause. 

LeClaire was acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer of 2009.  Ottawa sent forward Antoine Vermette the other way.  The deal was win-win.  Ottawa got a potential goaltender with great potential, who was drafted 8th overall in 2001.  Columbus, who extended Vermette’s contract by four years got a quality centre-man with speed, a good shot, and great penalty killing ability.

LeClaire was strong in his first year with Columbus, as a starter.  He won 24 games, 9 by shut-out, and posted an impressive 0.919 save percentage and goal against average of 2.25.  However, injuries contributed to him losing his starting job to Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) winner rookie Steve Mason.  Suddenly expendable, he was moved to Ottawa, a team in need of a top goaltender.  However, the same-old story played itself out.  LeClaire got hurt, twice, and lost his job to Incumbent Brian Elliott.  Now, cases can be made for why either goaltender should have been the starter in Ottawa, as the 2010 playoffs approached.  As a rookie call-up, Elliott provided Ottawa with good net protection for the last half of the disastrous 2008-09 season, and continued his solid play in 2009-10.  On the other hand, LeClaire was universally regarded as a potential top 10 goaltender in the league and was already being paid like one.  However, he didn’t get the job done early on in the season.  In LeClaire’s defence, he was suffering loses that were just a much a result of poor play in front of him as any fault in his own game; whereas, Elliott went on a nine game winning streak right around the time that the skaters on the team suddenly got their collective acts together and started playing like winners.

In the end, it is hard to debate the fact that Elliott had played better than LeClaire for the balance of the season, and that made it impossible for coach Cory Clouston not to start Elliott in the playoffs.  The problem with how the whole scenario played out is this.  For Ottawa to have any chance of winning their first round series in the playoffs (against any opponent), the team would need outstanding goaltending: the type of play that LeClaire had not shown yet in 2010 and arguably the type of play that Elliott has never shown.   Now, it is certainly not the case that Elliott is a bad goaltender.  In fact, he has demonstrated that he is good, pretty good; but, not outstanding.  LeClaire on the other hand, had demonstrated that he was injury prone and off his game; but, with the potential to be a show stopper.

Here’s a relevant comparison:

When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded for Dion Phaneuf, they were criticised for giving up too much, especially defenceman Ian White, who was having statistically superior season to Phaneuf.  However, pundits, such as TSN insider Bob McKenzie, correctly pointed out that Ian White was playing just about as well as he possible could, while Phaneuf couldn’t really get any worse.  Thus, if Phaneuf’s game improved to the point where he was even coming close to meeting his potential, the trade would be a win for the Leafs.  Phaneuf at his best is much better than White as his best.  Similarly, Elliott probably won’t get much better than he is now; whereas LeClaire has a lot of room to improve.  What Ottawa needed to do was give LeClaire every opportunity to get his game together by starting him at least half of the time until the very final stretch, when a decision about who to go with for the rest of the season absolutely needed to be made.

Hind-sight is 20-20, as they say.  But, what if LeClaire had started against Pittsburgh?  Could he have played like a man possessed and won the series for Ottawa?  Maybe.   He looked like he could have won the series single-handedly, after his game #5 performance.  Unfortunately (for Ottawa Senators fans), we will never know.  And, Clouston had no choice but to start Elliott, in game #1, at least.  The error, if I am right, is that the starting job should not have been handed over to Elliott so easily mid-season.  There were still plenty of games to be played, and time to give LeClaire a chance to show that general manager Brain Murray was correct to acquire him.

We will see what happens next season.  After his heroics in game #5, one would have to think that LeClaire will once again be given the chance to win the starting job in Ottawa.  If he does, the team could have a star goaltender heading into the 2011 playoffs.  If he doesn’t... well his contract is up, and top goaltending prospect Robin Lehner (drafted 46th overall in 2009) may be pushing for a spot in the big-league by then.  I’m not sure if I like an Elliott/Lehner tandem; but who knows, maybe Elliott will have shown that he has greater potential than anyone thought and can be the money goaltender Ottawa needs.

Money goaltenders are strange beasts.  Martin Gerber could have been one, if he could have played decently half the time in the regular season for Ottawa.  Possible his best four games in an Ottawa uniform were the four he lost to Pittsburgh in 2008.  No wait, his best game was against the New York Rangers on October 13th 2007 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KV9nUnvxIlM).  Ultimately, these things are hard to predict, but my gut-feeling is that LeClaire will start the majority of games for the Senators in the 2010-11 season, and will be a big reason why Ottawa wins at least one round in the playoffs.

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