Since the Sabres made the decision to move on from franchise goaltender Ryan Miller, the goaltending position has been in transition. Buffalo has had 8 different starting goalies since Miller was moved to St. Louis at the trade deadline in 2014. The transition has not really hurt the team over the past season and a half. However, its been surrounded by uncertainty for the future. The Sabres made moves this offseason to improve the talent in the net and bring stability for the future.
The New Future
During the offseason, Buffalo made a big move to solidify the goaltending position by trading a 1st round pick to Ottawa for 24-year-old Robin Lehner. The big Swedish goalie has appeared in 86 NHL games with a career .914 save percentage and a 2.88
goals against average. Lehner was once looked at as the future of the Senators but he struggled last season with a career low save percentage when the opportunity to grab the starting job was available.
Reviewing the advanced stats on Lehner he grades out as a pretty average goaltender in his short career. He has a career adjusted save percentage of 92.16 and a high-danger save percentage of 83.49; both of which rank in the middle of the league. Working in Lehner’s favor is his age and size. With his 6’4 frame, the former 2nd round pick has the size of the modern NHL goalkeeper and the potential to be solid starting goalie for the foreseeable future. Lehner still has to prove he can be a consistent number one and until he can do that, the position will remain unstable for the franchise.
Battle for the Back-Up
Heading into training camp, one of the battles to watch will be for the number two goaltending spot behind Lehner. The battle will likely feature three players in Chad Johnson, Andrey Makarov and Nathan Lieuwen. The early favorite of course is veteran back up Chad Johnson. The 29-year-old was acquired by the Sabres at the trade deadline last season as part of the Neuvirth deal with the Islanders. Johnson suffered a foot injury and never played in a game for the Sabres. This year he heads into camp looking to secure a roster spot over the two younger goaltenders.
Makarov has struggled at the AHL level, but always seems to step up his game when he appears at the NHL. The 22-year-old could be ready to make the jump to the next level and become part of the equation for the Sabres. He will have a lot to prove at
training camp, but has the agility and reaction skills to be a successful goalie in the NHL.
Lieuwen made a name for himself in the organization when he made 7 appearances in the 2013-14 season. The 23-year-old didn’t seem to be overwhelmed by the NHL stage. Lieuwen took a step back this past season when he started off poorly in the AHL and eventually ended up missing most of the season with a concussion. The Alberta native is a long shot to make the NHL roster, but he’ll be in the mix to start training camp.
The Sabres still have a lot of unanswered questions at the goaltending position. The NHL-level talent on the roster has not had a lot of success in the NHL. As of now, I give the position a C+ rating, with the uncertainty still surrounding the goalies it’s difficult to give a higher grade. Until Lehner, in particular, can prove he can be a number one net minder in the NHL I see the talent in net as average at best.