Since drafting Ryan Miller 138th overall in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, the Buffalo Sabres have struggled with drafting and developing another solid option in net. Buffalo has selected 13 goaltenders since Miller, with only one goaltender (Jhonas Enroth) playing more than 22 games.
When you have a goaltender of Miller’s caliber, finding your goaltender of the future is not at the top of a team’s list of priorities.
Through the list of failed goaltending prospects, there are eleven goaltenders who have played a combined 183 NHL games, and two goaltenders (Cal Petersen and Jonas Johansson) who have yet to sign their entry-level contracts. That’s roughly 17 games played per prospect, but only four of the 11 made it to the NHL.
Aside from Enroth, one other name pops out on the list of goaltenders with the second-most games played, Linus Ullmark.
Linus Ullmark Turning Heads Early On
Drafted in the sixth round (163rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Ullmark was immediately an intriguing prospect for the Sabres.
HockeysFuture.com spoke very highly of his goaltending ability:
“The former SHL Goalie of the Year is one of Sweden’s top young goaltenders, and is known for his tremendous poise. He is an athletic goalie with a big frame, but also uses his quickness and agility to his advantage. His rebound control is very good, in part due to his strong butterfly.”
His first professional season in North America caught the attention of many.
Split between Rochester Amerks and Buffalo, Ullmark performed above expectations with the big club but struggled with lesser talent in the minors.
In 20 games with the Sabres, he posted a .913 save percentage with a 2.60 goals-against average. In 28 games with the Americans, his numbers were a little more inflated – .902 save percentage / 3.41 goals allowed per game – but still impressive for a goaltender adjusting to the North American game.
Heading into last season, Americans goaltending coach Bob Janoz spoke highly of Ullmark and was to the point with Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle:
“We’re expecting Ullmark to have a bounce-back year. We believe he’s a top prospect.”
Praise for his development grew louder, as his workload increased and his stats decreased from the year before. In 55 games last season, he recorded a .909 save percentage and a 2.87 goals-against average with the Americans.
Before his firing, Tim Murray was naturally one of his biggest fans:
“His trajectory, playing two or three years in the Swedish Elite League, winning goalie of the year there, coming here now and playing two years in the American Hockey League, he’s taking the same track that many, many, many starting goalies have taken. ”
Murray was likely going to go with a pair of Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark in goal next season, but that’s up in the air now.
A Tough Decision To Be Made
Things get incredibly more complicated because of June’s expansion draft. The franchise can only protect one goaltender, per NHL rules. Right now, Robin Lehner, Anders Nilsson and Linus Ullmark are available to be protected.
No matter the case, Ullmark told Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald that he believes he is ready for the NHL:
“The workload has been a lot, so that’s been a new experience for me, just to be able to play 50-plus games. I was aiming for 60. Some call-ups got in the way, unfortunately. But other than that, I’ve just been trying to develop my game off and on the ice all day long, just don’t rush anything, take my time, don’t think that’s it’s going to happen right now. It’s going to bear fruit in the long run. Worst is probably the toll on your body, that you’re always feeling tired a lot. So there’s no problem sleeping at night, that’s for sure.”
His development and performance, coupled with his raw talent and lack of attractive options from Buffalo’s potential unprotected list, might make him an asset for the Vegas Golden Knights. This almost begs the question: will Buffalo throw a wrench into the process and protect Ullmark while leaving Lehner available?
Many discussions have been had and will continue to be had between now and the expansion draft but one thing is for sure, there will be no lack of drama for anyone involved.