At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, most were already skeptical of the playoff potential of the Buffalo Sabres, who were icing a goalie tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton in net for the third straight season. Now, they have all the more reason to be worried, as the team showed it does not have the organizational goalie depth to make up for the losses of both players.
Linus Ullmark, who had already missed a bit of Sabres’ training camp to undergo a mandatory quarantine after returning to the United States from Sweden, suddenly stepped away from the team again just a few days ago, the team citing “personal reasons” as to his being out of the lineup.
It was later revealed that Ullmark was mourning the passing of his father and was debating returning to Europe to attend the funeral ceremony.
Ullmark, who was expected to start the majority of games for the Sabres this year, appeared in just one game before his brief departure, making 21 saves in a 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals.
Hutton, who allowed 5 goals on 27 shots in the Sabres’ season opener against the Capitals, had rebounded nicely in his second start – the team’s first road game – leading the Sabres handily to a 6-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the second half of their back-to-back against the Flyers the next night, the Sabres found themselves in a scoreless game going into the second period, when Hutton was suddenly the recipient of a net-front collision with Flyers’ defenseman Ivan Provorov, who appeared to be knocked off his feet by the Sabres’ Brandon Montour.
Hutton, who found himself without a helmet and his net off its bearings, looked shaken up, but finished out the period allowing just one goal on a breakaway backhander from Travis Konecny. Hutton would not return, however, as Jonas Johansson, who started this season on the Sabres’ taxi squad, ended up filling in for him at the start of the third period. The Sabres went on to lose the game 3-0.
The Situation Without Ullmark and Hutton
The Sabres had not originally provided a timeline for Ullmark’s return, but it was a relief when he was reported to be traveling with the team on their road trip to Washington to face the Capitals again on Friday.
Hutton, on the other hand, underwent evaluation by team doctors on the night of his injury, and we haven’t heard much in the way of his return, or the seriousness and nature of his injury, either.
If there were questions about the strength of the Sabres’ goalies before the season, the status of the crease now should sound the alarms.
It’s good to have Ullmark back, and he is the best option the Sabres have, hands down. But had he gone home to Europe, and if Hutton was forced to miss a considerable stretch of time, the Sabres showed they are in no position to compete without the two of them.
Jonas Johansson performed well in relief of Hutton in their last game, but in his NHL career has amassed just seven games played, recording a sub-.900 save percentage. In AHL action, Johansson has fared better, playing in 22 games with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate Rochester Americans last season and recording solid numbers of a 2.28 GAA and .921 SV%.
His lack of experience in the NHL, however, is cause for concern. What’s worse, the options after him don’t look much better.
Dustin Tokarski, who signed a two-year, $725,000 contract with the Sabres last November, was added to the taxi squad on what is expected to be a temporary basis, until Hutton is cleared to return. While his career as a journeyman backup in the NHL offers some modicum of experience to the goal crease, it’s not exactly what the Sabres had in mind as far as a starter.
Other Options for the Sabres
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has been in the back of Sabres fans’ minds for years now, the young goalie prospect having been promised as “the goalie of the future.” At 21 years old, though, management has been apprehensive to rush him into the league, perhaps rightfully so.
The Sabres have been known to rush prospects into the league prematurely, ultimately throwing off their development; a recent and glaring example of that is Casey Mittelstadt.
While Luukkonen will reportedly be leaving Finland to join AHL Rochester in just a few weeks, he will have to undergo the standard quarantine protocol, just as Ullmark had to. So as an immediate solution, he does not appear to solve the issues the Sabres would be faced with were they to require his duties.
The likeliest solution for the Sabres happens to be the hardest to pull off in this season of COVID-19 – trading for an experienced goalie, or signing one from free agency.
It is going to be an especially challenging year for bringing new players into the organization with all the player movement between rosters, taxi squads, and the minor leagues, but the Sabres might be better off pouncing on the opportunity to pick up a goalie if it presented itself, rather than hoping for one of their own goalies in the ranks to step up and fill the hole left by Ullmark and Hutton, should one appear.
The Sabres are lucky that they did not go too long without Ullmark in this instance, but there’s no telling how long Hutton could be out before being cleared to play again. And if Ullmark goes down, well, they are going to need outside help if they have any hope of competing for a playoff spot this season.