Can Hammond Survive Play-Off Microscope?
Andrew Hammond’s third shut out of the season helped Ottawa leap frog Pittsburgh and Boston last night, placing the clubs play-off destiny firmly in its own hands.
A win in Philadelphia on Saturday would secure a wild card spot for a Senators side that was 10 points behind 8th placed Boston when the White Rock, BC native made his season debut on February 16th.
Now sporting a 19-1-2 record, Hammond’s streak has been pivotal to the Sens turn around and one of the highlights of the regular season; with the 27-year old likely to be the clubs starting goaltender for Game 1.
But with play-off hockey comes play-off scrutiny – and Hammond’s game will come under the microscope like never before.
One of the NHL’s Three Stars for March, Hammond’s 23 games (comprising of 22 starts) have pitted him against eighteen different opponents – with only the Rangers, Canadiens, Sharks, Hurricanes and Maple Leafs seeing the 6’1″ stopper more than once.
While the latter three won’t feature in the 2015 post season, either the Rangers or Habs could be the Senators first round opponents (depending on how Saturday’s final round of regular season games go); and you can bet either of those clubs will be eager to write their own ‘book’ on the Bowling Green University alumni.
And that is where the challenge comes for Hammond.
Prior to this season, he had 35 minutes of NHL experience and a respectable 25-19-3 record in the AHL, posting a .910 save percentage. As a pro goaltender he is/was still, largely, unknown – and the lack of frequent opponents combined with the rigmarole of the regular season meant he has stayed that way.
A single show down with the Senators stopper is/was largely inconsequential in the frame of an 82-game season. Organisations were not inclined to spend resources assessing someone they might never face again – and could have easily been back in the AHL had Craig Anderson not suffered a recurrence of his hand injury.
Now we’re talking about a 7-game series in the Stanley Cup Play-Offs.
Hammond’s game will be studied, measured and assessed – holes will be sought and probably found (they always are). And those gaps in his game will be exploited.
That’s where the challenge for the Senators stopper begins.
Hammond’s influence on the Senators season has been significant, as discussed by New York Times writer Pat Pickens and I on the One Puck Short Podcast, but his continued success depends on how well he reacts to this new challenge.
An ability to adapt quickly and continue this fairy tale run deep in to the post season could see the pending UFA cash in this summer. But failure to correct flaws may de-rail his NHL career, and Hammond is not the first netminder to make a strong start to his NHL career.
Nashville Predators Goaltending Development Coach Dave Rook has seen countless goalies, at all levels of the sport, go through the same transition Hammond now faces – can ‘The Hamburglar’ succeed where others have fallen?
“That’s a very good question. A question that sometimes can’t be answered until the play-offs are over.” Rook said. “There are alot of factors that come into play. There are many stories of prospects coming in to the same situation with different results. Cam Ward in Carolina and Steve Mason in Columbus for example”.
Mason won the Calder Trophy with Columbus in 2009, but struggled to maintain the same form in Ohio; eventually being traded to Philadelphia where he has managed to undergo something of a resurgence.
“Hammond is in a similar situation to Mason back in ’09” Rook, who was working with the Blue Jackets as Goaltending Coach at the time, recalls. “He came in due to injuries, got hot and helped the team secure the final play-off spot.”
“In Mase’s situation; the pressure of each game took a toll on him – and his team – come play-off time. I do think, because it was the first time Columbus had made the post season, and with the pressure that comes of getting there in the first place, the final push down the stretch were their play-offs. They had nothing left in the tank for the 1st round.”
Though the Senators have made it to the post season before, there are parallels between Mason’s rookie year and Hammond’s recent streak. But will the same fate befall Ottawa and their new hero?
“There are a couple of differences between the two situations” Rook says “Steve was 21, and the team was less experienced – they eventually got swept by Detroit – but I like the fact Hammond is a little older than a lot of goalies that are in the same position. He’s playing as if he has nothing to lose right now. There are no expectations on him. If he wins, great, what a story. If he loses, he wasn’t expected to win anyway.”
“There isn’t any sense of entitlement – He has paid his dues, made his mistakes in the AHL. I am sure the maturity he has will definitely benefit him”
Hammond, like the Senators, will find himself on a steep learning curve during the post season – again, he’s not the first to face this situation. Nor will he be the last.
Even Carey Price, a lock to win this year’s Vezina and a potential Hart Trophy candidate, stumbled after making a strong start to his NHL career.
Seizing the #1 job from Cristobel Huet in 2007/08, only to lose it to Jaroslav Halak – there was outcry in ‘la belle province’ when the Slovakian play-off hero was allowed to walk away as a free agent in the summer 2010,. It’s safe to say the Canadiens’ faith in Olympic gold medallist has proven to be well-founded.
Others however, like former Flyers and Kings netminder Roman Čechmánek, struggled to adapt once the proverbial ‘book’ had been written on their traits, tendencies and faults.
One figure who could have a major influence on Hammond’s development in the coming weeks is Ottawa goaltending coach Rick Wamsley.
“‘Wammer’ is a great goalie coach” Rook, who runs Pure Hockey Goaltending in Ontario, says. “He’ll ensure Hammond is prepared for the situation. Whether this is a pre-scout on the players he will be facing, keeping him humble and focused or obtaining the amount of rest/recovery leading into the series.”
The work Sean Burke did with Mike Smith and Devan Dubnyk, as well as Braden Holtby’s revival working with Mitch Korn, show what a strong goaltender/coach relationship can do.
If Wamsley can have a similar influence on Hammond, what started out as a great story line could become something more for the NHL’s newest goaltending star.
But whatever the next weeks and months hold for Hammond, one thing seems certain at this point – ‘The Hamburglar’ will be forever engrained in Senators folklore.