For the past couple of seasons, the Buffalo Sabres have had a ridiculous goaltending carousel. They have needed to use upwards of six goalies both years, and as the season presses on, it is time for them to pick one to ride to the end of the year and commit to them.
The current tandem of Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski have been sub par since the return from the All-Star break. Tokarski lacks consistency, and Anderson looks older and older as each game passes. The stats for each of them are not great, but they aren’t terrible either. The problem is that it is difficult to watch as a Sabres fan knowing that many more games could have been won this year if there was quality NHL caliber goaltending on a regular basis.
That being said, the future of the Sabres in goal looks very promising based on their prospects’ performances. Using them sooner, rather than later, would be highly beneficial for the team, and for their fans. Here’s a look at each of the top future options, and where they should fit in the organization’s plans going forward.
Ukko Pekka Luukkonen
Ukko Pekka Luukkonen (UPL) has been the talk of the Sabres goalie pipeline for a few years now. After being selected in the second round (54th overall) in the 2017 draft, there was a lot of hype surrounding the 6-foot-5 Finnish netminder. He played with great positioning and speed, and scouts touted his ability to make the key save when it counted. The year after he was drafted, he went on to win the OHL Goalie of the Year award, by putting up some stellar regular season numbers (2.50 GAA, .920 Sv%) which made him poised to step into the spotlight for the Sabres in a few years.
Soon after that, he had some needed hip surgery done, which is always a scare for goalies and their flexibility, and he came back to play with some average numbers in the American Hockey League (AHL) during his time there. Luukkonen has not fared well with his record, or his numbers, while playing in the minors, but he was still given a good shot this year with the big club, and he put on a clinic. While his AHL numbers are below average this year (3.08 GAA, .902 SV%) he made the most of his call up to the NHL. His record reflects the team’s overall play at 2-5-2, but he managed to put up some solid numbers (2.74 GAA, .917 SV%) in spite of that before getting injured again.
After recovering from his injury this year, he was sent back down to the minors, but this is a massive mistake. UPL showed he has the capacity to be an NHL caliber goalie, and by having him play more games up in Buffalo, his reactions and vision will only improve for next year when he hopefully can take the reins in a tandem, or starting spot.
Portillo was drafted by the Sabres in the third round of the 2019 draft (67th overall) and is currently a starter at Michigan. Standing at a whopping 6-foot-6, he has the size to match the trend of high end goalies in the NHL. While playing in his second year at Michigan, Portillo has played some very meaningful minutes and has good numbers to show for it. He boasts a record of 25-9-1 with a 2.14 GAA and a .926 SV% which would be some incredible stats to bring to the NHL. Portillo is still young and most likely will have a couple more years of college hockey ahead of him, but it would not be a surprise to see him make a case for an NHL position next year during training camp.
While Michigan is stacked to the brim with top end NHL prospect talent, including the Sabres’ own Owen Power, this will only make him better while playing pressure games, and in his training. Just this past week, Portillo was named to the Mike Richter award watch list as one of the most outstanding goalies in college hockey.
Considering his age and his talent level, the Sabres have a nice internal competition between Portillo and Luukkonen for which large goalie will take the spotlight as the starter in the future. UPL has the edge based on experience and overall play, but seeing Portillo push him for that spot would not be surprising.
Devon Levi was acquired by the Sabres in the trade that sent Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers. As a former seventh round pick in 2020, Levi has since risen very much from his draft stock. After playing zero games for Northeastern University (NU) in his draft year, he did go on to have some ridiculous numbers as the starter for Team Canada at the World Juniors. He posted a 6-1-0 record with a 0.75 GAA, and a .964 SV%. That performance seemed to win him the starting spot at NU and he hasn’t looked back as this season he has posted a 18-7-1 record with a 1.54 GAA and .951 so far. Levi has put up a total of nine shutouts so far as well, and while this level of play doesn’t seem possible to keep up, Levi continues to shine.
This past week, Levi was also named to the Mike Richter award watch list as one of the most outstanding goalies in college hockey alongside previously mentioned Erik Portillo.
Levi was also chosen this year to be one of the representatives for Team Canada at the Olympics, but was strangely left out of any game time for the entire tournament. In a competition that featured a lot of college level players, it seemed logical to use him, especially considering his numbers, but instead the Team Canada staff left him on the bench to watch them finish in 5th place.
Related: How Much Have the Sabres Improved?
Levi is yet to be signed by the Sabres officially, but general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams would be a fool if he didn’t lock him up after this college season ends. Is he ready to make the NHL jump now? Most likely not, but he brings some key skill and athleticism to the future goaltending position. Levi is a bit shorter for goalies standing at a mere 6-foot tall, but his vision and speed make up for this slight disadvantage. In the years to come, he will be given every opportunity to succeed and win the starting job in Rochester and Buffalo, but he will have to prove he is more than just capable.
The Present and Near Future
The Sabres currently have Craig Anderson, Dustin Tokarski, Aaron Dell, Michael Houser, Malcolm Subban, and Luukkonen under contract, but after this season only a few will remain. Dell has shown that he clearly cannot stand up to regular NHL competition anymore, so he will be on his way out. Craig Anderson should retire as soon as this year ends. Tokarski may try to go somewhere else for playing time as the crease gets crowded. Houser is a safe minor league bet that can step in for a couple NHL games if needed, so he most likely stays. Subban is a solid younger goalie that needs the right fit, so I could see him staying if he can win the starting Rochester job. Finally, UPL will most likely challenge for the starting NHL job next season if Kevyn Adams does not bring in any goalies during free agency this year.
With all that being said, the Sabres should bring up Luukkonen sooner, rather than later, to give him the most NHL action prior to being sent back to Rochester for the American Hockey League (AHL) playoffs. Anderson looks very old as each game passes, and Tokarski is either a wizard that stops everything, or Swiss cheese; there is no in between with him. Using UPL now will give him the mentality that it is his net to take next year, and if he wants to keep it from Portillo and Levi in the next few years he will need to show consistency more than anything.
I have been a hockey and Buffalo Sabres fan since I was in middle school. Through the good times and the very long bad times, I have stuck by this team with the hope that one day we would become a powerhouse in the NHL. Now I join The Hockey Writers as I hope to talk about this Buffalo Sabres team on an upswing. I love this team with all my heart, and I take pride in my ability to know players, prospects, and so much more. As a hockey fan I have a particular taste for young players and prospects; doing mock drafts, looking up stats, guessing potential, doing player comparisons, all of it. The idea of the future skill in the NHL is one of my favorite things to think about, write about, and talk about. I am also an avid NHL gamer with a top ranked team in the “Threes Eliminator” mode.