Going into the start of free agency, it was obvious that the Boston Bruins were going to need to sign a veteran goaltender. Jeremy Swayman is only in his second year, and isn’t ready to have complete control of the net. Dan Vladar, who has since been traded to the Calgary Flames, also lacked NHL experience. With Tuukka Rask an unrestricted free agent and facing offseason surgery that will keep him off the ice until January at the earliest, the team needed to bring someone in that would be ready to be the starter when the puck drops in October.
This is where Linus Ullmark comes in. The 28-year-old Swede has spent the entirety of his NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres until this point, and as everyone in the hockey world knows, that has not been the easiest place to play in the last decade. Still, he strung together several good seasons, earning him a four-year, $20 million contract that carries an average annual value of $5 million.
Road to the NHL
Ullmark was born July 31, 1993 in Lugnvik, Sweden, and he played his junior hockey in his home country of Sweden. He started in the J18 Elitserien league playing for Kramfors-Alliansen, and then made the switch to MODO Hockey. In the 2011-12 season, he played 25 games for the MODO Hockey J20 team and went 14-11-0, with a .918 save percentage and a 2.76 goals-against average.
Ullmark was drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Level Draft, 163rd overall, by the Sabres. He was praised for having great poise and athleticism in scouting reports. He continued to play in Sweden after being drafted and even appeared in eight games of the senior Elitserien league in 2012-13. That year he also was part of Team Sweden’s silver medal winning World Junior Championship team.
He became the official starter for Modo as a 20-year-old in the 2013-14 season, going 17-16-0 in 35 games with a 2.08 GAA and .931 save percentage. He also recorded five shutouts. At the end of the season, he was awarded the league’s goalie of the year award, the Honken Trophy. In May 2014, he signed his entry-level contract with Buffalo. Still, he played one more season on loan in Sweden.
In the 2015-16 season, Ullmark debuted in the NHL. That season, he played in 20 games with the Sabres and 28 games with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League (AHL).
In the 2015-16 season, 22-year-old Ullmark played in 20 games for the Sabres. He was 8-10, but despite the losing record, still put up decent stats, posting a .913 save percentage and 2.60 GAA, which put him right around average for goaltenders in the NHL.
Despite a decent NHL stretch, he spent most of 2016-17 playing in the AHL. In 55 games for the Americans, he had a 2.87 GAA and .909. Ullmark once again spent most of the 2017-18 season playing in Rochester, appearing in only five games in Buffalo. He took steps forward that year, improving on his stats to 2.44 GAA and .922 SV%. He was named to the AHL All-Star Game in both seasons.
The 2018-19 season was the first one Ullmark played fully in the NHL. Despite playing on a Sabres team that finished 6th in the Atlantic Division twice, and last in the Eastern Division last season, he still managed to play decently with little help from the rest of the team and facing injury issues. His most recent injury was a lower-body one that kept him out for the last few weeks of the 2020-21 season.
Ullmark has been one of the few bright spots for Buffalo in recent seasons, and managed to steal games for them. They had been in talks for him to return, but ultimately, he chose to sign with Boston and is presumed to be the starter when the 2021-22 season starts in a few short weeks.
What He Brings to Boston
Don’t let Buffalo’s performance in recent seasons color your opinion of Ullmark, he is a very talented goaltender. Last season, he finished fourth out of 51 goalies that had at least 800 minute of 5-on-5 play with a .937 SV% and 9.13 goals-saved above average. He managed this with a fairly weak blue line in front of him.
Boston still has some question marks when it comes to its defensemen, but it is certainly better than what the Sabres were last season by a longshot. Given what he could do with little help, the Bruins’ blue line will given him some much needed support. He should be able to put up even better numbers this season, especially if he can remain healthy. This may really be an opportunity for him to blossom and thrive.
Ullmark is a very athletic and big goaltender, stands at 6-foot-4, and has great mobility in the crease. He’s still fairly young at 28, but brings the NHL experience the Bruins were missing when they were initially facing a Swayman and Vladar tandem at the start of the offseason. They needed to bring someone else in, and they really hit it out of the park with who they got.
My biggest concern with Ullmark is the length of his contract. Four years seems a little long for a guy who has had some struggles with injury. Also, if Swayman can truly play as well as he did in his small sample size last season, then it probably won’t take four years for him to be ready to take over as starter, and they may be looking at an expensive backup in that fourth year.
There is also of course, the Rask question when talking about the Bruins goaltender situation. The door is not closed on him returning at some point this season when he’s back from injury. If that is the case, then one would presume that he and Ullmark become the tandem, and Swaymen is sent to Providence.
Still, if signing him for four years is what it took to bring Ullmark onto the Bruins, then it was a necessary risk to take. I won’t say the team is better in goal than last season, as Rask is and has been one of the top goalies of the last decade. But, there isn’t the same question mark that there was back in June. Ullmark is fully capable of being a solid starter in the NHL and really has a chance to elevate his name this season on an actual playoff contending team.
Make sure to check out the rest of my introductions of the Bruins’ free agency signings, and read all about The Hockey Writers’ 2021-22 Bruins Season Predictions.