Another holiday season has come and gone, and 2021 is coming to a close. Unfortunately, the end of the year has seen some uncertainty arise in the hockey world as the 2021-22 NHL season was put on pause for a week, bringing back memories of March 2020, the last time the regular season was paused. It looks like things are slowly getting back on track, though, and the Buffalo Sabres returning to game action this week is just one sign of that.
The Sabres have also had their share of uncertainty this year, especially when it comes to the goaltending position – but things look a lot different in goal right now, with much of the credit going to Malcolm Subban and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. These two net minders top the Sabres’ goalie depth chart heading into 2022, and both are poised to make their cases to own the crease for the second half of this season.
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While they certainly don’t have a shortage of goalies in terms of quantity, the Sabres have a goalie shortage in terms of quality, and have for quite some time now. Subban and Luukkonen could change that if they perform up to their potential, but what does the landscape look like behind them? Where do the rest of the goalies in the Sabres’ system rank in the depth chart? Here’s where the five top goalies, and some honorable mentions, rank in the organization in my mind.
1. Malcolm Subban
Topping the Sabres’ goalie depth chart is Subban. Although he was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for nothing but future considerations, I think the expectation from Sabres general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams when he acquired Subban was that he would start the bulk of the Sabres’ remaining games for the 2021-22 season, in lieu of the 40-year-old Craig Anderson who is out month-to-month on injured reserve (IR) and could potentially miss the rest of the season. Things didn’t go quite according to plan, though, as Subban sustained an injury in his first game in a Sabres sweater, and then the season was put on pause upon his return. Come 2022, though, I think he’ll be given every opportunity to take the reins of the Sabres net.
Subban was the first-round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2021 NHL entry draft, so the expectations were always high for him. At 28-years-old, it looks like he might have been a “bust,” at least in regards to his high draft position and the pressure that’s set on first-round picks to pan out. The six-foot-two, 215 pound Subban has played just 84 career games to date, with a record of 36-32-9, a 3.02 goals against average (GAA) and an .899 save percentage (SV%), with three shutouts. Those aren’t show-stopping numbers by any stretch, and his play has declined in recent seasons, as he’s posted sub-NHL numbers over the last two seasons.
In Subban’s last two seasons, he has posted a 3.18 GAA and .890 SV%; and a 3.20 GAA and .900 SV%, respectively. Usually, a GAA over 3.00 and a sub-.900 SV% are good indicators of a goalie who is not NHL caliber, so the fact that Subban is still at the top of a team’s NHL depth chart is truly atypical, and somewhat impressive, even if it is the Sabres we’re talking about here. There is an argument to be made, however, that he hasn’t been given a fair shake at the NHL level, and needs a bigger body of work to prove himself. His biggest body of work came back in the 2017-18 season as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, when he started 22 games and registered 13 wins. Playing north of 40 games this season could be a true test of his starting potential.
In two games played since joining the Sabres, Subban is 0-1-1 with a 4.79 GAA, and .877 SV%. Those numbers are obviously inflated, and a bit misleading, considering they’re from a sample size of two games and his second start for the Sabres after his brief injury was one of the best of his career: he stopped 45 of 48 shots in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was the only reason why the Sabres picked up even a single point that night. With the right defense in front of him and a legitimate chance to prove himself, he could prove a lot of doubters wrong in 2022.
2. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
A lot of Sabres fans will probably question why Luukkonen is ranked as the No. 2 goalie on the depth chart and not the No. 1 goalie, and I’d completely understand why. Due to injury and COVID protocols, the Sabres were forced to play him in the NHL earlier than they might have liked this season, and he’s responded by performing the best out of any Sabres goalie this season. In five games played, he has a record of 2-2-1, and a 1.96 GAA and .939 SV%. By all measures, he’s been the best goalie statistically that the Sabres have iced in some time. But there’s one key reason why he’s ranked below Subban on the depth chart: he’s played just nine NHL games to date.
Luukkonen is still incredibly young at just 22-years-old, and considering most goalie prospects aren’t given a real chance at a starting position in the NHL until about age 25 or 26, it’s impressive that he’s even entered the conversation – but that’s encouraging, because that’s exactly what Sabres management and fans alike expected from him.
The second-round pick of the Sabres in the 2017 entry draft, the six-foot-five, 217 pound Luukkonen has enjoyed success in his native country of Finland, on the international stage in the World Junior Championship, and at every level before the start of his professional hockey career. But, as with any European goaltending prospect, there is an adjustment to the North American game that must be made before he’s ready to play up to his potential, and I believe he could benefit from some more experience in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Sabres’ affiliate Rochester Americans before he’s handed the Sabres’ starting job.
Luukkonen hasn’t played all that great in the AHL, although he has made massive strides this season in earning his first career AHL shutout, his first career nomination as AHL player of the week, and his first winning record as he’s helped the Amerks to a 15-8-0 record, good for second in the North Division behind the Utica Comets. All this shows that his trajectory is pointed in the right direction, which is exactly why I think that it would be more beneficial for him to enjoy success in the AHL and potentially make a deep run in the Calder Cup Playoffs, than to stick around the Sabres, who are positioned to have a tough second half of the season and do a lot of losing. I’m not against him being called up for a few more games toward the end of the season, but it might be smart to let him start for the Amerks until then.
3. Craig Anderson
Ranking as the No. 3 goaltender in the Sabres goalie depth chart is Anderson. How could a goalie who hasn’t touched the ice since mid-October, and who is listed as month-to-month on IR rank ahead of two other goalies, you ask? Well, it’s simple: he’s just that much better of an option than the two goalies ranked behind him, even at the ripe age of 40-years-old. And, head coach Don Granato has said he doesn’t believe Anderson’s injury is season-ending, so there’s still a chance we could see him return and start some games between the pipes for the Sabres.
Before he sustained the injury that has kept him out for the majority of this season, Anderson started 6 games for the Sabres, and posted a 2.50 GAA and .921 SV%, helping them to a 5-1-1 record, a red hot start that no one saw coming. While that record has proven to be unsustainable, they might have been able to steal a few more points here and there had he been healthy and able to help keep them in games.
As far as veteran mentors for younger goalies go, Anderson is one of the best choices. He has played 658 career games, recorded 295 wins, and spent a decade as the Ottawa Senators’ starter helping them to some deep playoff runs, including in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he helped them to overtime of game seven in the Eastern Conference Final, eventually losing to the Penguins after being one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final. He also won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy that season, awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey, after returning to play amid his wife’s battle with cancer. I really hope to see Anderson back this season, so he can finish out his swan song and have a proper send off to his NHL career.
4. Dustin Tokarski
Ranking at No. 4 in the Sabres goalie depth chart is Dustin Tokarski, the 32-year-old journeyman backup who has become one of the Sabres’ go-to guys over the last two seasons. After former goalie Linus Ullmark’s injury in the 2020-21 season, Tokarski found himself as the Sabres starting goalie. Then, the same thing happened again this season when Anderson went on IR. The crazy thing is that despite his age, Tokarski has less NHL experience than his 28-year-old counterpart Subban: he’s played in just 61 career games. His career high in starts came way back in the 2014-15 season with the Montreal Canadiens, when he started 17 games. This season, he’s already started 14. If he makes his way back into the Sabres lineup this season, he’s sure to set a new career high in games played. That’s about the only career high he’ll be setting, though.
In his 14 games played this season, Tokarski has posted a record of 4-5-3, and has poor personal numbers: a 3.28 GAA and .903 SV%. All signs point to him being a subpar NHL goaltender, and while he has understandably been the Sabres’ best option at times recently, he’s not the best option right now. He is a good depth option and emergency call-up player, but I’m not sure he’s much more than that. This makes for a ranking near the bottom of the organizational depth chart.
5. Aaron Dell
Coming in at No. 5 on the goalie depth chart is Aaron Dell, one of the Sabres’ offseason goalie signings of this past summer. Placed on waivers in January of this year and then claimed off waivers, then unsigned and sent to the free agent market, Dell has fallen out of favor with most NHL teams after being a suitable backup option for many seasons. The 32-year-old has played 121 career NHL games, a considerable amount more than some of the Sabres’ other goalies in the system. Most of those games came with the San Jose Sharks: he played a career high 33 games in the 2019-20 season with the Sharks, but posted relatively poor numbers with a GAA above 3.00 that season.
As far as backup goalies go, Dell seemed like a pretty good option for the Sabres, even after his poor performance with the New Jersey Devils after being claimed off waivers. So far, his career with the Sabres hasn’t been pretty, though. He’s played seven games so far but has yet to record a win, going 0-5-0 and posting a 4.52 GAA and .872 SV%. It’s safe to say he ranks comfortably behind the four goalies ahead of him, and will likely only see any more NHL action this season if the Sabres absolutely must start him for lack of options.
Sabres’ Goalie Depth After the Top 5
After the top five goalies, the Sabres don’t have much immediate depth at the goaltending position. While they do have some top-end talent playing in NCAA college hockey, with Devon Levi excelling at Northeastern University and Erik Portillo at the University of Michigan, their AHL and ECHL depth isn’t much to brag about. Perhaps worth mentioning is Michael Houser, who started four games for the Sabres last season, going 2-2-0 and posting a respectable .901 SV%. He started this season with the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate Cincinnati Cyclones before being recalled to the Amerks, where he’s played three games and has posted a 2.70 GAA and .896 SV%. Also recalled from the Cyclones was Mat Robson, who has split time with Houser in the Amerks’ current tandem.
At the end of the day, Luukkonen is expected to be the Sabres’ future starter, while Levi and Portillo both have a legitimate chance to push for the starting position as well. However, all three of these goalies still need some time to develop, and Sabres fans are going to have to wait for them to be ready. Until then, Subban tops the depth chart, and Adams and company hope he can be a good stopgap before this young team is ready to take the next step. 2022 should make for an exciting year in a lot of ways, including the Sabres’ battle for supremacy between the pipes.
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Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15