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The Senators’ “Baby Giraffe” Could Be The Answer

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 22: Mads Sogaard reacts after being selected 37th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena on June 22, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ottawa’s goaltending situation is, to choose a noteworthily generous adjective, unsettled. Matt Murray, acquired via trade and signed to a four-year, $25 million extension, has struggled to find his footing. He’s also battled injury, as has backup Marcus Hogberg. Filip Gustavsson, Anton Forsberg, and Joey Daccord have all seen time in net, and forward Artem Anisimov was thisclose to being forced to play between the pipes. Together, the Sens’ goalies have combined for a save percentage below .900. But this weekend, help got just a little bit closer.

Mads Sogaard, a 20-year-old Dane, was the Senators’ second-round pick in 2019, 37th overall, and Ottawa has big hopes for him because he’s a very big boy. Not necessarily the most athletic of goaltenders, Sogaard still clogs a net—he’s 6-foot-7, which makes him one of the tallest at his position at any level. But there’s a reason his teammates call him “Baby Giraffe”: He’s currently listed at just 196 pounds, and will have to spend the next couple of years putting on muscle to further fill out a crease. He’s also chatty; I like him already.

But until last month, Sogaard was not officially a Senator. He was supposed to play for the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers again this season, but because of the pandemic, the mutual decision was made for him to play in Denmark’s Superisligaen, because it was set to play a full season while the North American minors were very much up in the air. He had a fine season, sporting a league-high .922 save percentage—a career best for him at any level—with a 10-5-1 record, though he faded a bit down the stretch. But more importantly, playing against older pros gave him a shot of confidence he might have needed after an up-and-down year in Medicine Hat. “I got to play some meaningful hockey with some playoff games as well,” Sogaard said. “I was really happy to stay over there and just have a place to play hockey this season.”

So when the Danish league wrapped up last month, Sogaard was ready to come back and begin his conquering of Ontario, signing a three-year, entry-level deal.

He looks thrilled!

This weekend, Sogaard was thrown right into the fire, making his AHL debut with the Belleville Senators, and starting back-to-back games, both against the Toronto Marlies. He had a fine enough opener on Saturday in a 5-3 win, and looked even better in the rematch, making 29 saves in a 4-1 victory on Sunday.

Sogaard’s biggest challenge will be standing out amid a glut of Sens goalie prospects. Gustavsson has the inside track, and he’s still just 22, but he’s perhaps not developing at quite the rate you’d want to see. Daccord, two years older, may prove a capable backup but isn’t thought to have the highest ceiling. Kevin Mandolese is considered a project, but with potentially high upside, and after a breakout 2019–20 has already seen time on Ottawa’s taxi squad at age 20. All three have more experience at higher levels than Sogaard, but none of them have exactly seized the reins. (There’s also 2020 third-round pick Leevi Merilainen waiting in the wings to complicate things further.)

It’ll be a few years before Sogaard sees the NHL if he ever does, and in the meantime his development will focus on bulking up and controlling his body. You can’t teach size, but Sogaard “needed to get stronger and get more stable in his stance,” said Senators goaltending coach Pierre Groulx. “And he’s done that, he feels great when he’s on the ice as far as holding his edges.”

The Senators have one of the strongest prospect pipelines in the sport at the moment, so if everything works out, they could be a real contender within a few seasons. But all of that skating talent won’t mean anything if there’s not an elite backstop behind them. Ottawa is counting on at least one of their goalie prospects emerging to stand above the rest. That may or may not end up being Mads Sogaard, but he has what it takes to stand taller than any.