The Buffalo Sabres goaltending job has been a revolving door for the past few seasons, but a deep pool of talent at the position offers promise for the future.
If we look at the Sabres’ goaltending pool from top to bottom, it starts with Linus Ullmark. Ullmark has gotten progressively better with Buffalo in every one of his five seasons with the organization. There has never been a loud buzz around his name, which has allowed the Swedish netminder to go about his business and become a borderline starter in the NHL.
When Buffalo acquired Carter Hutton before the start of the 2018-19 season, it looked like it was his net to lose. Furthermore, Hutton started off hot with Buffalo, leading fans to believe that he was the de facto number one. As the season progressed, however, his game began to taper off, seemingly opening the door for Ullmark.
Fast forward to this season, where Ullmark had clearly taken a full grip on the starting role before his injury. In 33 appearances, he has a 2.72 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%). In fact, he has a .905 or better SV% in all five of his professional career seasons.
He is not a flashy goalie by any means, but he plays a fundamental game that is centered around a modern-day butterfly stance. Rarely does he give up secondary chances or become rattled throughout a game. He’s proven that he belongs in the NHL, and more importantly, has shown a model of consistency when given the chance to thrive in a starting role.
Ullmark is in the final year of a $1.325 million contract, which will make him a restricted free agent come season’s end. He turns 27 in July, and in terms of goaltenders, is coming into the prime years of his career. Goalies often take far longer to fine-tune their game and become a starter, a process that Ullmark has held true to.
He deserves to be paid, and the Sabres are more than likely going to do that. The main question being, how much will he be paid? If I had to guess, Buffalo would be more than willing to pay him upwards of $4.5 million per year. The term is another story as it often comes down to how much the team values a player. Regardless of all this, Ullmark looks poised to become a part of the Sabres’ future for years to come.
As mentioned above, Hutton was brought in before the 2018-19 season to be the Sabres’ starting goaltender. Before Buffalo, Hutton had bounced around as a backup goaltender in the NHL, most recently with the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. Hutton gained notoriety with the Blues during the 2017-18 season when he was able to carry the team amidst the struggles with their then-number one goalie Jake Allen. He played in 32 games, compiling an impressive 2.09 GAA and a .931 SV%.
Hutton’s strong play in net with the Blues earned him a three-year deal with the Sabres at $2.75 million. In his first year with the team, he would play a career-high 50 games. His numbers would dip to a 3.00 GAA and a .908 SV%.
As the 2018-19 season dragged on, it was clear that Hutton had become burned out. He started the first two months of the season 12-8, which included a personal eight-game winning streak in the month of November. The rest of the season he went a miserable 6-24, with a month of February where he went 1-8. The numbers suggest that he had simply become worn out come season’s end.
The 2019-20 season has suggested more of the same for Hutton, who started this year with a six-game winning streak. After the strong start, he went on a 13-game losing streak. He has been forced back into the starting role with the injury of Ullmark and has managed to steady the ship with a 6-4 record and a .903 GAA in the month of February. Even with that being said, all of these numbers point to the fact that Hutton is not cut out to be a number one goaltender.
That statement brings us to Hutton’s contract situation, which has been heavily discussed with his inconsistent play for a second straight season. After this season, the Sabres owe him $2.75 million before he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2020-21. He is 34 years old and isn’t getting any younger. Many would like to see Hutton’s contract buried in the minors, with Jonas Johansson most likely replacing him as the backup. It’s yet to be seen what Buffalo decides to do with Hutton, but it’s unfortunate that he squandered the opportunity he was given to finally become a starting goaltender in the NHL.
Due to the injury of Ullmark, Johansson has recently gotten his first taste of the NHL. He has spent the past few years flip-flopping between the AHL’s Rochester Americans and their ECHL team, the Cincinnati Cyclones. The 2019-20 season has marked his first full season in the AHL, and he has made the most of it. The Swedish netminder has 20 appearances with Rochester, leading to a stout 2.19 GAA and .925 SV%. The impressive numbers were good enough to earn him a trip to the AHL All-Star game.
I’ve gotten the chance to watch Johansson play in person on a few occasions this season. From a healthy sample size, my main take away was that he is extremely calm in net. He honestly reminds a lot of Ullmark in the way he swiftly moves side to side, along with the confidence that he displays. Despite this calm nature, Johansson has the ability to make some astounding highlight-reel saves. On more than one occasion in a single game, I saw him make incredible pad saves as he stretched out every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame.
Johansson is 24 years old and in the final year of his entry-level contract. He has seemingly played his way into the backup role with the Sabres for next season, although this is dependent on what Buffalo decides to do with Hutton. Johansson will certainly be signed for less money than what Hutton is currently making, which would help the cap and ultimately make him an attractive option to back up Ullmark.
Tagged as the future in between the pipes for the Buffalo Sabres, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is a 20-year-old Finnish netminder that was selected by the Sabres in the second round of the 2017 Entry Draft. Similar to Johansson, he is a lengthy goalie, standing at 6-foot-4. As young as he is, Luukkonen is still coming into his own and has a long way to go before he is NHL-ready.
In 2018-19, he spent almost the whole season with Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He appeared in 53 games for the Wolves, posting a 2.50 GAA and .920 SV%. His impressive play earned him the honor of being named the OHL’s MVP and top goaltender. His 38 wins with Sudbury set a new franchise record for the team, while he also led the league with the six shutouts. His stellar season in the OHL carried over to the international level, where he helped lead Finland to a gold medal in the 2019 World Junior Championships. In six appearances during the tournament, he had a 1.80 GAA and .932 SV%.
Following an encouraging OHL season, Luukkonen made the jump to the ECHL with the Cyclones. In his 22 appearances with the team so far, he has proven he belongs at the ECHL level. He has posted a 2.16 GAA to go along with a .916 SV%. Due to the trickledown effect of the Ullmark injury, Luukkonen has spent the better half of the last month with the Americans in the AHL.
With Rochester, Luukkonen has gone through some expected growing pains. He’s appeared in 10 games with the club, compiling a 3.15 GAA and .874 SV% over that stretch. I’ve also gotten the chance to watch him play in person, and you can easily see why the Sabres are excited about the goalie prospect they have.
Luukkonen is massive in net, and there looks like there are no holes when he’s in his stance. His struggles seem to come with secondary chances, which resorts from rebound control. On several occasions, he had the tendency to push rebounds out into high-danger areas, where one of these rebounds ended up in his own net. All signs still point upwards for the young Finnish goalie, but it’s going to take time before he is groomed into being the next elite netminder that Buffalo hopes he becomes.
Dipping down into the depths of Buffalo’s goaltender pool, Erik Portillo is a 2019 third-round draft pick that has shown promise in the United States Hockey League. He is yet another tall Swedish netminder inside the Sabres system, standing at 6-foot-6. He grew up playing for the famed Frölunda Hockey Club in Sweden before committing to the University of Michigan. He came over to the United States this season to join the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In his first year with the team, Portillo has posted a 2.11 GAA and .915 SV% in 27 appearances.
Scouts have touted him as a calm and composed netminder who uses his size to his advantage. Portillo is only 19 years old, but it’s always promising to see a young goaltender continue to progress throughout his young career. He is set to join Michigan for the 2020-21 season, where we will see if he can take the next step forward as a goaltender.
A Bright Future
The goaltending depth chart within the Buffalo Sabres organization is filled with promising youth and offers fans the chance to have a positive outlook on at least one aspect of the team’s future.
Sabres fans had been spoiled by the dominance of Dominik Hasek, followed by the emergence of Ryan Miller shortly thereafter. Since Miller’s departure, the team has been searching for their next elite netminder. Goalies like Robin Lehner have come and gone, finding success elsewhere, leaving us wondering what we have to do to lock down a productive puck stopper.
If it’s worth anything, Ullmark is pointing towards a similar trajectory that Miller was once on. He has been groomed in Rochester, and is now ready to assume the number one goaltending role. Let’s just hope that trajectory pans out the same because it’s been a while since we saw anything close to “Miller time.”