Following a 2017-18 campaign that left a lot to be desired, improved goaltending was near the top of the Buffalo Sabres’ wish list heading into the offseason. On July 1, they signed the top goaltender on the free agent market, inking Carter Hutton to a three-year deal. Recently turning 33 years old, he represented the ideal stopgap option to buy the organization a little time for youngsters, Linus Ullmark and Ukko-Pekka Luukonen to continue their respective development.
As we approach the mid-way point of the 2018-19 season, Sabres fans are getting a feel for just how bright the team’s future is in net. With Hutton providing a steady, reliable presence in the interim while his young contemporaries have taken impressive strides as potential future franchise options between the pipes. Ullmark has adjusted seamlessly to a permanent role with the big club, and Luukkonen has taken the OHL by storm. Barring something unforeseen, the Sabres appear to be set at goaltender for the long-haul.
Related: Sabres Find Stability with Hutton
Ullmark’s Path to Success
The road to a permanent NHL role has been a long one for Ullmark, who the Sabres selected with the 163rd overall pick in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft. After spending two full seasons with MODO of the SHL, the Swedish standout spent the better part of three years with the Rochester Americans from 2015-16 to 2017-18 (with a handful of NHL appearances sprinkled in as a result of injuries).
At 25 years old, fans were somewhat skeptical regarding his prospects as a future franchise netminder. Those concerns were exacerbated when he posted a .800 save percentage during a first-round sweep at the hands of the Syracuse Crunch in the Calder Cup Playoffs last season. Ullmark has done an outstanding job of quelling those concerns with his performance during the first half of this season.
In 13 starts this season, he has posted only one regulation loss in contrast to his eight victories. His save percentage of .922 ranks him 11th in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 12 starts. From an analytics perspective, his GSAA of 2.46 ranks him among the top-10 reserve goalies in the league. Even more impressive is his high-danger save percentage of 86.49 which is good for seventh among all NHL netminders.
As most hockey fans are already aware, goalies tend to take longer to develop. For this reason, the fact that he’s hitting his stride at 25 years old isn’t really a concern. Ryan Miller was the same age when he first emerged as a co-starter in net during the 2005-06 season where he appeared in 48 games. In all likelihood, the best is yet to come from Ullmark and fans should be extremely encouraged regarding where he stands at this point in his career.
General manager, Jason Botterill deserves some praise as well for how he’s handled Ullmark’s situation. The pursuit of an inexpensive, reliable veteran to take the pressure off of the young man to be the starter right out of the gate was absolutely the correct move. Given Hutton’s reputation as a leader and mentor in the locker room, paired with his ability to take on a lion’s share of the starts this season, could be exactly what Ullmark needed in order to take the next step.
Time will tell just how quickly he’ll be ready to take over the reins as the team’s primary option, but giving him this season to settle into his role as a reserve is proving to be a wise decision on the part of the front office.
Related: Ullmark Still Sabres Solution in Net
Luukkonen’s Switch to the OHL
In an unanticipated turn of events this summer, Luukkonen made the decision to bring his talents across the pond, switching from the Finnish Liiga to Sudbury of the OHL. With the third overall selection of the 2018 Import Draft, the Wolves selected the 19-year-old netminder in a move that came as somewhat of a surprise to many fans who expected him to stay in Europe for another season.
In an interview with Jeff Giffen of the Sudbury Star, Luukkonen cited the adjustment to the smaller rink as one of the reasons for his decision to transfer to North America.
“It’s easier to take steps from the smaller rinks in North America to the NHL and AHL, so that’s one thing, but the most important thing was that there’s going to be a lot of games for me, a lot of playing and a lot of stopping pucks, so that’s why I’m coming to Sudbury.”
In 26 games with Sudbury this season, the highly-touted prospect had posted a save percentage of .923, good for second in the league behind Boston Bruins’ prospect, Kyle Keyser. As the second goalie off the board when the Sabres selected Luukkonen with the 54th overall pick in the second round in the 2017 NHL Draft, expectations for the 6-foot-4 Scandanavian were (and continue to be) extremely high.
— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) December 24, 2018
After struggling with a pedestrian .879 save percentage for Team Finland during last year’s World Junior Championship, he has recovered nicely. As Finland’s starting netminder in the tournament again this year, he got off to an outstanding start, stopping 28 of 30 shots faced in a 2-1 loss to Sweden in the first game of the group stage earlier this week. Last night he recorded an 18-save shutout in the team’s second game, a 5-0 victory over Kazakhstan.
While he probably won’t hit the North American professional ranks until the 2020-21 season, Luukkonen is one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL. Over the next two seasons, Sabres fans will monitor his progress closely.
What will be interesting is what the organization does in net three years from now when Hutton’s contract expires. The franchise could have a situation where they trade one of Ullmark or Luukkonen if both of them are worthy of being the team’s primary starter. Yes, we’re counting chickens way before they hatch, but it’s at least interesting to consider for now.