When the Ottawa Senators made a giant splash in roster changes this past summer, most of the attention was centered around star forwards Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. But from a positional standpoint, the bigger move arguably was the acquisition of veteran goaltender Cam Talbot.
And news Monday that Talbot would be out for the next five to seven weeks with an upper-body injury, confirmed as a broken rib by coach DJ Smith on Tuesday, could be the leak in the Sens’ boat that causes them to miss the playoffs.
The 35-year-old Talbot was solid for the Minnesota Wild last season, posting a 32-12-4 record, .911 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average in 49 games. But when star netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was acquired during the season – and then re-signed to a two-year, $7-million contract in the summer – the writing was on the wall for Talbot’s tenure in Minnesota.
Talbot’s $3.67 million average annual salary cap hit (which will end after this season) made him an attractive asset for teams looking for help between the pipes, and Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion liked him the most, sending goalie Filip Gustavsson to the Wild in exchange for Talbot.
Certainly, there was going to be some competition for Talbot with the Senators – 29-year-old Anton Forsberg remains with the team, and his individual numbers last year, including a .917 save percentage in a career-high 49 games, make him the obvious choice to play the majority of games in Talbot’s absence.
However, in another indication most NHL teams are using a more balanced goalie tandem until the playoffs, Dorion on Monday claimed journeyman netminder Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken.
Hellberg has a lot of size at 6-foot-5, but he’s got only five games of NHL experience, and he’s played in the KHL from 2017 to 2021. His career NHL numbers (five games played, .869 SV%, 2.82 GAA) are not a comfort, and although Hellberg projects to be Forsberg’s understudy for the time being, you’d better believe Dorion will be counting the calendar days until Talbot returns.
The Senators’ schedule through Nov. 18 – the latest Talbot could return given the information disclosed Monday – is challenging: they have 16 games in total in that span, and six of them come against Atlantic Division rivals Buffalo (twice), Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida and Boston.
Any divisional game is important in the improved Atlantic Division, so it’s likely Smith will be relying on Forsberg in most, if not all of those games. Meanwhile, the remaining 10 games include matchups against playoff contenders Washington, Dallas, Minnesota, Vegas, Vancouver, New Jersey, and the New York Islanders. Only games against Arizona and two against Philadelphia are games Ottawa clearly should win.
However, the good news about Ottawa’s schedule in that time is there are no games on back-to-back nights. If he wants to or needs to, Smith can use Forsberg in the vast majority of the games, then give him some time off once Talbot returns.
But the truly frightening prospect is what would happen if Forsberg goes down to injury. The acquisition of Hellberg speaks volumes to the NHL’s starkly barren goaltender market. Playing Hellberg, or even 21-year-old prospect Mads Sogaard, for an extended period of time could prove calamitous for the Sens.
They very much need Forsberg to stay healthy, and if he does, the Senators may ride out Talbot’s injury with little damage.
That said, we have to recognize (a) Ottawa’s defense corps is not regarded as particularly threatening in their own zone, and (b) unless Dorion makes a blockbuster deal for Coyotes star blueliner Jakob Chychrun, there aren’t any impact D-men on the trade market, so what the Senators have on defense, they’re likely to have at playoff time. This means Forsberg and Talbot, when he returns to action, must do some of the heavy lifting this year.
Ottawa’s offense is much improved, but they still need at least average goaltending to have a good shot at winning more games. For the first 20 percent of the season, they’ll be depending on one man to shoulder the load. Good luck to Forsberg as expectations on him notably increase.