Throughout their 40-plus year history, the Buffalo Sabres have been fairly fortunate at the goaltending position. All time greats such as Roger Crozier, Grant Fuhr and Tom Barrasso have all guarded the Sabres’ crease at some point or another. Dominik Hasek, arguably the greatest goaltender in NHL history, won back-to-back Hart Trophies in a Sabres uniform in 1997 and 1998. More recently, Ryan Miller became an elite goaltender while playing in Buffalo.
Fortunately for Sabres fans, goaltender has never been a position of weakness for a long period of time. Even today, goaltending isn’t a weakness in the disappointing Sabres’ roster. Both Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have posted solid statistics thus far this season.
The Sabres appear to have a strong future in net, as well. Linus Ullmark, who has spent this season in Rochester but has seen time with the NHL club before, has all the tools to be a solid starting goalie in the NHL. Current Notre Dame goaltender Cal Petersen, whom the Sabres selected with the 129th pick in the 2013 draft, looks as though he’ll a consistent NHL goalie sooner rather than later.
There’s just one problem, however. Cal Petersen has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Sabres, and the clock is officially ticking.
Notre Dame Standout
The selection of Petersen in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft wasn’t necessarily a headline grabber. Although the goalie had played well for the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL, rarely does a fifth-round selection dominate the news cycle at the time of the pick.
Fast forward to today, and Petersen seems to be dominating the news cycle. In his freshman season with the Fighting Irish, Petersen finished second in Hockey East in both goals-against average and save percentage. As a sophomore, the Waterloo native played in all 37 games, finishing with a record of 19-11-7. In both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Petersen was a Mike Richter Award nominee as the top collegiate goalie in the country.
Petersen’s junior season has been more of the same. His 2.14 GAA is good for third in Hockey East, and his record of 21-11-5 is the best of his young career. For the third consecutive year, Petersen has been named a semi-finalist for the Mike Richter Award.
With Notre Dame’s regular season coming to an end on Saturday, Sabres fans should be getting excited. They should be anxiously awaiting the signing of one of the best collegiate goaltenders in the country. So why are they nervous?
Lack of Faith in Management
Although general manager Tim Murray has made some solid moves during his tenure as general manager, he doesn’t have the best track record with signing college free agents.
Although he has signed a number of college free agents throughout his tenure (such as Casey Nelson and Evan Rodrigues), Murray has consistently failed to reel in the big names. The obvious example here is Jimmy Vesey, the Harvard forward that the Sabres had ample opportunity to sign this past offseason. The Sabres acquired Vesey’s negotiating rights in June 2016, and had until Aug. 15 to sign him to an entry-level contract. The team failed to do this, as Vesey signed with the New York Rangers upon becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Even more recently, Murray failed to seal the deal with a highly touted college defenseman. It was rumored that the Sabres were one of two teams on the shortlist of St. Lawrence University’s Gavin Bayreuther. The signing, of course, didn’t pan out, as Bayreuther instead opted to sign with former Sabres’ coach Lindy Ruff’s Dallas Stars.
The sole blame for missing out on these players can’t be placed on Murray. It’s entirely possible that Vesey and Bayreuther simply didn’t want to play in Buffalo. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Murray has a poor track record with signing high-profile college free agents, something Petersen will undoubtedly be.
Examining Petersen’s Potential Role
Let’s not kid ourselves here. Petersen isn’t the next Hasek or Brodeur. However, that’s fine. Most goalies aren’t the next Hasek or Brodeur. Most starting goaltenders in the NHL are solid, which is exactly what Petersen has the potential to be.
Should the Sabres sign Petersen, he would likely start for the AHL’s Rochester Americans next season. This would allow Ullmark to serve as the team’s full-time backup as the Sabres moves on from Nilsson.
Petersen could also be competing for the starting job in the NHL in the coming years. While both Lehner and Ullmark appear as though they have the potential to be consistent starters, Petersen has the ability to overtake both of them. Also, it’s never a bad idea to have an abundance of talented goalies. The worst case scenario would be the Sabres trading one of three solid goaltenders for draft picks, similar to the New York Rangers’ situation with Cam Talbot just a few years ago.
There’s no doubt that Petersen is one of the most talented goalies in college right now. By signing him, Murray would not only add a talented goalie to the organization, but he would also regain some of the faith Sabres fans have lost in him over the past couple of months.
The decision is really Petersen’s here. He is the one who will decide whether or not he wants to join the blue and gold. The Sabres have a prestigious history when it comes to the goaltender position, and hopefully Petersen will decide to join that group rather than test the waters in free agency.