Going into the season the plan in-goal for the Sabres was clear. Lehner would be the number one goaltender and backed up by veteran Chad Johnson. Well only about half way into the first game the plan changed. Lehner went down with a lower body and could miss up to two months according to early reports. While the newly acquired goalie is on the sideline other players will have an opportunity to make an impact for the organization.
Getting the Opportunity
As of now, the plan for the Sabres is to go forward with Chad Johnson as the starter. Buffalo will try to get by with what they have in the organization instead of looking for help via free agency or trade for now. When Johnson was acquired at the trade deadline last season he spoke of taking advantage of the opportunity to be a starter in the NHL. He was ready to show the Sabres they could
consider him an option going forward, but the veteran was hit with some bad luck. Prior to starting his first game for the Sabres last season in the morning skate, Johnson took the last shot of practice off of his foot. The 29-year-old would end up missing the remainder of the season with the injury and miss his opportunity to show what he can do as a starter.
Now with Lehner going down, Johnson will get his opportunity. He’ll be the go to guy as long as he performs well while Lehner is out. Johnson has a career 2.41 goals against average and a .914 save percentage in his time as a career backup in the NHL with the Rangers, Islanders, Bruins and Coyotes. The former 5th round pick in 2006 believes he can be a starter in the league, but just needs his opportunity. Now is his time to prove it not only to the Sabres, but to the rest of the league.
Another player who may get another opportunity is young goaltender Nathan Lieuwen. The 24-year-old saw time with the Sabres two seasons ago at the end of the year while the team was going through a rash of goaltender injuries. Lieuwen was respectable in his NHL appearances and was expected to likely get another look last season. However, bad luck showed up again and he missed most of the season with a concussion. Lieuwen will back up Johnson while Lehner is out and may get into a few games to show he’s improved.
Ahead of Schedule
The early surprise of the season may be the quick recovery of goalie Linus Ullmark. Last season Ullmark suffered hip injury and had surgery in the middle of last season. It was expected that the 22-year-old would be out until roughly January and this season may have been a lost season in his development. However, to everyone’s surprise the 22-year-old Swede was cleared for game action already and is making his debut for the Sabres AHL affiliate Rochester Americans.
Ullmark provides some hope in the system behind Lehner. The former 6th round pick is the top goaltender prospect in the Sabres system, if you don’t consider Lehner a prospect. Now that he’ll be playing in North America for the entire season this year, he’ll have a chance to appear in NHL games next season or even spot starts this season if all goes well. If Lehner does struggle over the next two seasons and turns out to not be the answer in net, Ullmark should be on schedule to step in for his opportunity. It’ll be an interesting story line to follow throughout the season to see how he adapts to the North American ice. To go along with the Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth will have his hands full when Lieuwen returns to Rochester. Cunneyworth will need to figure out a way to split the crease between Lieuwen, Ullmark and Andrey Makarov.