With a history that includes plenty of criticism for not having enough goaltending in the system, the Ottawa Senators have the inverse problem today. Plenty of prospects throughout the system serve as a compliment to the duo of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner and make it hard to imagine a shortage of goalies in the future. They may need to pardon the provincial pun, but fans looking to get a sense of how rich and deep that pipeline runs needn't look further than the Calgary Hitmen.
Winnipeg native Chris Driedger has been a rock in goal for the Hitmen since joining the team in 2011-12. After a trade to Calgary from Tri-City, Driedger stepped in as the starter and made an immediate impact. In 44 games as a 17 year old, he went 24-12-3 in 44 appearances with a goals-against average of 2.80 and .896 save percentage. In the summer of 2012, the Senators made him their third round selection, 76th overall.
"When I came to Calgary I was 17 fresh off my rookie year," said Driedger. "Coming in, playing some big minutes as a 17 year old ended up helping me a lot down the road. I just wanted to do the best I could and stop as many pucks as I could in the games I was given."
Since then, his improvement has been steady and the success Calgary has had has followed in kind. In 2012-13, he established career bests in games played (54), wins (36), goals-against average (2.51) and save percentage (.917). In the playoffs, he helped bring Calgary to within a win of the Western League final. Not only that, but his play earned him an invite to Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence goaltending camp which put Driedger on World Junior radars.
Unfortunately, a slow start to the season for the Hitmen didn't allow those World Junior aspirations to take shape. Since then, he has used falling short of Hockey Canada as a motivator.
"My goal going into the season was to have a strong start and make the team but obviously that didn't happen. The dominoes didn't really fall in the right direction for that," said Driedger. "I just wanted to prove Team Canada wrong and use that to make me play better throughout the season. I think it's good to have something motivating you like that and it has helped me a lot."
The Hitmen have had a season of ups-and-downs thus far but, now a veteran, Driedger has been one of their consistent bright spots. He has tied his high for shutouts in a season with three and, though his goals-against average is up from last season's 2.51, he's stopping a higher percentage of pucks.
Beyond the standard stats, it has been a year of personal milestones.
On January 31, he became the Hitmen's all-time leader in saves when he recorded his 3,375th stop for the club. He passed current LA Kings goaltender Martin Jones to cement his place in the team's record book.
"It was a really cool moment, especially since the Hitmen have had such good goalies over the years," said Driedger. "With (Justin) Pogge and Martin Jones who's making a name for himself in the NHL right now, to pass him was cool for me. Being a part of this team for that long, in an organization like the Hitmen — it's a pretty big honour to go down in history."
He wasn't done making history there. Two nights later on February 2, Driedger became the sixth Western League goalie to score a goal. It was a bit of a bizarre play — not unlike the one which led to former Senators goaltender Damian Rhodes scoring a goal against the New Jersey Devils — but it counts nonetheless.
A save from Driedger glances off the stick of a teammate during a delayed penalty, when the puck is accidentally fired down the ice into the opposition goal. The goal was originally credited to Chase Lang — much to Driedger's chagrin as he listened hopefully in the crease — but the goaltender wound up getting credit after all.
"At the beginning of the second period the ref skated over and said, 'Congrats on your goal.' I was pretty shocked. I didn't know they had given it to me," said Driedger. "Next thing I knew they were announcing it. It's a freak accident stroke of luck for me but it's pretty cool to go down in history like that as scoring a goal."
Technically speaking, the goal was the first for Driedger at any level of hockey as a goaltender.
"I've scored a few on my own net but I don't think those count. "
Part of Driedger's growth as a goaltender can be attributed to the work of the Sens development team and goaltending coach Rick Wamsley. They have worked closely with their prospect since he joined the organization in 2012. That instruction from organization and prospect is ongoing throughout the season and not just limited to training camps.
"Guys like Rick Wamsley and Randy Lee have been really good at walking me through what you have to do, how your attitude has to evolve and mature as a player and a person to get to the next level," said Driedger. "It has been a great help and Ottawa is a great organization to work with."
"They're really, really good about getting us to e-mail them every week. I send as many e-mails as I can, sending them updates on how things are going and if there's a problem I usually don't hesitate to talk to them about it. Their advice is pretty key — especially at training camp too. I think I could have had a better camp and they were really good at telling me what I needed to do better, how my attitude needed to be a bit more positive coming into training camp and through this season."
With the Western League's finish line in sight, the focus for Driedger and the Hitmen going forward is a WHL championship. Those forecasting how the Eastern Conference will play out could do worse than projecting a showdown between Driedger and fellow Sens prospect Curtis Lazar. The Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings have developed a heated rivalry over the years, with Edmonton bouncing Calgary from the 2013 playoffs.
While the Hitmen have experienced their share of adversity this season, Driedger feels it could be what they need to get through the biggest games.
"We have a team that can make a run this year," said Driedger. "The second half of the season is about the bonding of the team and getting that mesh as a group of guys to be able to win that championship."
"I think going through the tough times will prepare us for the playoffs. It's going to help us when the going gets tough where it really matters."
Fans of the Hitmen hoping for that championship run can take comfort knowing their team has never had a goaltender stop as many pucks as Chris Driedger.
Sens fans can get excited knowing that he'll be on his way to Ottawa before long.
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