Did the Sabres Hit the Offseason Ull-Mark?

For better or worse, the Buffalo Sabres have their goaltending tandem for the 2020-21 season. And no, it’s not Taylor Hall.

Linus Ullmark Buffalo Sabres
Linus Ullmark, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The coaching staff has emphasized their total satisfaction with a third straight season of their goalie tandem in Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. While management didn’t rule out the possibility of capitalizing on an irrefutable deal, they were adamant about giving the duo another shot.

Is it a solid foundation to the standards of Buffalo’s pride in Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller? Not quite, but fans that are underwhelmed by the front office decision shouldn’t dispel the possibility of a bounce-back season at the position for the Sabres.

While it’s certainly more appealing for supporters to see new faces by way of signings and trades, franchise longevity can be equally profitable and is frankly a less harmful method of constructing fruitful teams. The Sabres don’t have a novel face between the pipes, but maybe that’s for the better.

Sabres Reach an Agreement with Ullmark

On Oct. 25, the Sabres cemented their goaltending philosophy for the upcoming season by signing Ullmark to a one-year, $2.6 million contract. The two sides avoided an arbitration hearing by 12 hours with their goalie coming off a season in which he statistically improved in multiple noteworthy categories.

In addition, they were able to sign the Swedish netminder without jeopardizing the team’s long-term salary cap, which will provide the franchise added flexibility heading into the future flat-cap era.

Ullmark benefits by obtaining a one-year pay raise (a notion worth celebrating given the NHL market and financial climate) that will give him every opportunity to display his talents for another potential raise at the end of the 2020-21 season.

This deal, along with the other less-heralded signings pulled off by the Sabres’ management this spring, makes for a season that can go either way depending on where the team goes from here with the pieces they possess. With most major transactions complete, an adequate penalty-killing system and reliable goaltending are what will put this team over the playoff hump that has impeded the Sabres’ progress for nearly a decade.

If the team underachieves, the excuses, excluding palpable COVID-19 difficulties, will be few and far between. For what it’s worth, I will knock on wood for Sabres fans.

What Will the Sabres Get Out of Hutton?

To say the least, Hutton has been a shell of his former self since being acquired from the St. Louis Blues. Over a two-year span ranging from 2018 to 2020, the tandem of Ullmark and Hutton rank poorly in nearly every significant statistic that the position has to offer.

Carter Hutton Buffalo Sabres
Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Narrowing the evaluation period to only last season depicts Ullmark as a reasonable starting netminder; most notably, the Swede ranked seventh leaguewide in even-strength save percentage, at 0.926, and led the league in minimizing rebounds, at 2.55 per 60 minutes.

On the other hand, Hutton classified as a bottom-tier goaltender (dejectedly putting it lightly) during his stint with the Sabres. However, in June, the netminder claimed to have been suffering from convergence insufficiency from November through early January, which influences one’s ability to visually process in a timely manner. He has since told media that he has made a full recovery over the prolonged layoff by performing eye exercises and therapy.

The skepticism among fans is warranted; if he really was suffering from a health condition, why was he suiting up in the first place? The staff must have known it would severely diminish his ability to perform his job which just so happens to involve tracking and stopping a minuscule high-velocity puck that’s problematic to locate even with exceptional vision.

While I share the skepticism to a degree, I’ll give Hutton the benefit of the doubt.

The Historically Abysmal Penalty Kill

Last season, the team’s penalty-kill ranked 1039th out of 1091 teams since 1977. That statement alone should stimulate the roster; it should hang in the team tunnel before every game, an everlasting embarrassing reminder that they cannot skip defensive steps towards success. Their lineup is suitably equipped to improve on this element of the game with the acquisitions of Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, and Tobias Rieder. (from ‘Cody Eakin, Tobias Rieder aim to help fix Sabres’ penalty-killing woes,’ Buffalo News, 10/21/2020)

Los Angeles Kings Dustin Brown Golden Knights Cody Eakin
Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown and former Golden Knights center Cody Eakin. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

The roster shot themselves in the foot last season with a flawed 4-on-5 philosophy, and the goalies failed to bail the team out. Equally imperative as a dramatic save to preserve a lead is a crucial penalty kill that drains the opposition’s spirits.

With Ullmark on the precipice of a potential career year, the Sabres’ sights should now veer towards making sure they’re on the right side of history this upcoming season.

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