After two years of tearing down, the time has come for general manager Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres to begin the full rebuild of the organization. The team has locked down the second overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, a pick that is near certain to be Boston University’s Jack Eichel, as well as made some significant additions to the roster in the form of Evander Kane and last year’s first round selection Sam Reinhart.
Though the team’s forwards and defense appear to be solidifying nicely, one position that remains uncertain for the future is goaltender. The team has a few good young prospects in the system like Linus Ullmark and Jonas Johansson, but neither of them are, obviously, ready to make the NHL jump. As far as who’s already here, Chad Johnson isn’t a guy you go into a season with as your number one guy, and Andrey Makarov, despite me being high on him, just isn’t ready to be given the reigns yet. Matt Hackett, I feel, won’t be back next season.
That leads to the obvious option for the Sabres this year: bring in someone from outside the organization. It may not be a deep field, but there are a number of options available for the Sabres to bring in as a goaltender to hold fort until the aforementioned Ullmark or Johansson are ready to come up. Free agency will offer a few options for Murray, but the second first-round pick that the team has could also be thrown out as bait in order to lure a goaltender via trade.
Before getting into those goaltenders, let’s look at who will be available for Buffalo on the free agent market. The first name that comes to mind is soon-to-be-former San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi. The former Stanley Cup-winning goaltender has spent the last five seasons with San Jose, but with the team in flux, it’s almost certain he’ll hit the open market. That’s when Murray and the Sabres could strike.
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By bringing in a netminder with a career goals against average and save percentage of 2.39 and .916, respectively, Buffalo could have a goaltender they can rely on most nights to make the saves he needs to make. If Martin Biron could be a serviceable starter for the Sabres, why couldn’t Niemi be the same? If Niemi isn’t the man Buffalo is looking for on the free agent market, what about a familiar face in Michal Neuvirth or even Jhonas Enroth?
Before being traded to the New York Islanders for Chad Johnson at the deadline, Neuvirth was establishing himself as the number one for the Sabres. In his 29 starts for the Sabres, Neuvirth put up a very respectable 2.96 goals against average and .921 save percentage in front of the league’s worst defense. He has a familiarity with the club, and could be finally given that chance to run as a starter for an entire season with Buffalo.
In the case of Enroth, is return is more unlikely because it seems clear that Murray, for the most part, wants his own players in place. That being said, Enroth recently mentioned that Buffalo would be his first choice should the team call him this summer.
If the free agent field doesn’t have the player that Murray is hoping to get, there are a few names that could become available for trade around the time the draft and free agency get set to begin.
One name that is particularly interesting is Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.
Howard was replaced in favor of Petr Mrazek, who seems to be destined to be the goalie of the future for Detroit, for the Red Wings brief playoff run. He’s already said he won’t force his way out of Detroit, but what if a team that wants him comes calling? He has four years left on his contract with a cap hit of $5.3 million per year, and the deal also includes a no-trade clause. If Murray were to want Howard, he’d have to convince the 31-year old to go to the Sabres and be a part of an up-and-coming rebuild.
Should he not go for hit, the Sabres could turn their attention to players like Cam Talbot, who shined for the New York Rangers during Henrik Lundqvist’s absence, and Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators. Lehner is an intriguing option due to him being a pick of Ottawa while Murray was with the Senators. With Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond seemingly the two goaltenders for Ottawa going forward, Lehner could be readily available.
He’s never been given a true opportunity to be a number one guy in the NHL, but has shown signs of it being possible after leading the Binghamton Senators of the AHL to the Calder Cup in 2011. The 23-year old is under contract for two more years at a cap hit of 2.225 per year before becoming a restricted free agent in 2017.
There are a number of options for Murray and the Sabres, and the future of the team’s goaltending is a decision that will likely be just as meticulously decided as the team’s search for a new head coach. No matter what the team decides to do, one thing is for sure. Come October, a new starting goaltender will be wearing blue and gold for Buffalo.
What do Sabres fans think will happen with the goaltender position come opening night? Here are just a few of the answers:
— Chris Ostrander (@2ITB_Buffalo) May 7, 2015
— Andrew Meyer (@AndrewTRW) May 7, 2015
— Scott Michalak (@ScottyMCSS) May 7, 2015
— TJ Luckman (@TJLuckman550) May 7, 2015
— Aivis Kalnins (@LWOSShakcc) May 7, 2015
Michael is a former Managing Editor for The Hockey Writers. He’s covered the Buffalo Sabres, along with the NHL in general, for various outlets since 2009. His work has been featured on outlets such as Yahoo, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.