Ryan Miller provided solid goaltending for the Buffalo Sabres since playing his first game for Buffalo during the 2002-2003 season. He has posted consistent numbers during that span with a 2.59 GAA and a .916 save percentage over his career. Now that the netminder has moved on in a recent trade with the St. Louis Blues, an open competition has emerged to find the Buffalo Sabres starting goaltender as a focal point of the club’s rebuilding efforts.
Aside from Miller, the Sabres have had six other goaltenders on the roster for the club this season. The current goaltenders competing for Buffalo’s open starting job include Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Lieuwen, Matt Hackett, and the recently acquired Michal Neuvirth. A fifth goaltender, Jaroslav Halak was dealt to the Sabres in the Ryan Miller trade but he was traded to the Washington Capitals before he saw any action in Buffalo. A sixth goaltender named Ryan Vinz, an employee of the Harbor Center which is owned by the Sabres, also suited up for the Sabres the night Ryan Miller was traded but he also did not see any ice time.
With the Sabres in the midst of a total rebuild, every position on the team is up for grabs. Miller was a rock for the Sabres for many years but with his departure, there is opportunity for a new face to lead the Sabres into the future. The Sabres have a lot of room in cap space heading into the offseason so there is no telling who else might be in the mix next season.
Recent injuries to Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth have opened this competition up even more to the Sabres farm system. Goaltenders Nathan Lieuwen and Matt Hackett, who have both spent time this season with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans, are getting the opportunity to play in the NHL. Lieuwen and Hackett are looking to make an impression on GM Tim Murray in the hopes of securing a more regular place in the NHL. Here is a look at each of the candidates currently with the club who all have an opportunity to become the next Sabres starting goaltender.
Perhaps the front-runner to Buffalo’s goaltender competition is Jhonas Enroth. Despite a poor record this season of 4-17-5, Enroth has not gotten much support from the club in front of him. This lack of support is captured by a lot of statistics but perhaps the most telling is the 1st period goal differential. The Sabres are currently last in the league in goals scored during the 1st period with thirty-three. Opposing teams have doubled the Sabres’ 1st period goal production as Buffalo has allowed sixty-six goals in the opening frame. Enroth is currently on the mend with a lower body injury and is listed as day-to-day but it seems he could be sidelined for a longer period of time.
Defensively, the Sabres have struggled mightily this season and this has contributed to Enroth’s poor win-loss record. Enroth has posted a 2.82 GAA and a .911 save percentage. For his career, he has a 2.75 GAA and a.913 save percentage which isn’t too far off from this year’s numbers. To date in his fourth NHL season, Enroth has played in just eighty-one career games where he spent most of his time as Ryan Miller’s backup. Enroth has not yet had an opportunity to play consistently in the NHL and perhaps being able to do so will help him emerge as the starter.
A former second-round pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Enroth is poised to take advantage of the opportunity to become a starting goalie for the Sabres. His numbers in the AHL were a bit better where he had a 2.64 GAA and .915 save percentage over his career with the Sabres’ former AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. Enroth has proven he can give his club a chance to win on a consistent basis in the past. He filled in nicely during a stretch in the 2011-2012 season when Ryan Miller was sidelined with a concussion. However, he has not been very consistent since then and he will need to find his game again in order to win a starting role.
As Ryan Miller was dealt away from the Sabres, the club brought in veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Halak’s tenure in Buffalo would be one of the shortest for any goaltender in the history of the team. Halak will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Sabres GM Tim Murray decided to trade Halak to the Washington Capitals and received goaltender Michal Neuvirth as part of the package for Halak.
Neuvirth seemed to be emerging as the goaltender of the future with the Capitals during the 2010-2011 season playing in forty-eight games where he had twenty-seven wins, a 2.45 GAA and a .914 save percentage. Since that season his numbers have been on the decline. During the last three seasons in Washington, Neuvirth had an overall record below .500 and he took a backseat to goaltender Braden Holtby who started in most of the Capitals games this season.
While he has fallen off a bit, Neuvirth has a fresh start with the Sabres and an opportunity to use this clean slate to emerge as a starter. The Washington Capitals selected Neuvirth in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Neuvirth has had success prior to joining the Washington Capitals. He was awarded the Dave Pinkney Trophy while a member of the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. Neuvirth also was a member of the 2008-2009 Hershey Bears who won the Calder Cup. He received the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy being named the AHL’s Playoff MVP.
Neuvirth will look to regain his consistency as he competes for a starting role with the Sabres. He stopped forty-two shots in his debut with the Sabres and looked very sharp. However, he has recently been sidelined with a lower body injury and is also listed as day-to-day.
After the injury bug swept through Buffalo’s goaltenders, the Sabres recalled Nathan Lieuwen from the Rochester Americans earlier this month. Lieuwen has been playing well for the Americans where he has a 2.34 GAA and a .922 save percentage in thirty-two AHL games this season. The injuries to Enroth and Neuvirth not only allow Lieuwen a chance to prove himself to the Sabres brass but it also gives GM Tim Murray a chance to see Lieuwen perform at the NHL level.
Lieuwen is a former sixth round pick of the Buffalo Sabres where he was selected one hundred and sixty-seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The young goaltender has found success in the early going of his hockey career. As a member of the Kootenay Ice, Lieuwen led his club to a WHL Championship during the 2010-2011 season. His hard work and strong performances during the playoffs earned him WHL Playoff MVP honors.
The youngster has gotten high marks this season for his solid performances in Rochester. Before being recalled by the Sabres, Lieuwen had seventeen wins under his belt for the Americans. He has given the Sabres a chance to win in the two games he’s played with the big club. If Lieuwen can continue his past success at the NHL level he has the potential of becoming a key component of the Sabres’ future goaltending core going forward.
Last but not least is goaltender Matt Hackett who also spent time in the AHL this season. Hackett was recalled by the Sabres less than a week ago and put up a strong performance in his debut game for Buffalo. He stopped thirty-five of thirty-six shots and was a major factor in the game. If he can find more consistency in his game, Hackett figures to play a prominent role in Buffalo’s goaltending picture in the coming years.
Hackett was originally selected by the Minnesota Wild in the third round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Many felt that he could be the goaltender of the future for the Wild. However, he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres along with forward Johan Larsson, a 2013 1st round pick and a 2014 2nd round pick in exchange for forward Jason Pominville and a 4th round pick in 2014.
Hackett has not performed as well as Lieuwen in Rochester this season. While Hackett has won thirteen games, he has a 3.07 GAA and a .898 save percentage. In order to be considered for a spot in Buffalo, Hackett will need to find more consistency in his game. His career numbers in the AHL are respectable where he has a 2.45 GAA and a .915 save percentage. Hackett will face tougher competition in the NHL so he will need to perform at this level or better in order to be considered for a spot with the Sabres.