Amerks (Sabres) Season Preview: Betweeen the pipes
Buffalo Sabres training camp was supposed to have opened last Friday. Instead, Tyler Ennis agreed to hop over the pond to Switzerland, Christian Ehrhoff was beginning his stint back in Germany and other Sabres were pondering European deals as well.
While it doesn’t seem as if the Sabres will be starting up any time soon, the Amerks have been injected with some extra talent (from their parent club) and have a deep, overpopulated roster to sort through before the puck drops on the AHL season.
The most difficult decisions for Ron Rolston and his staff will be at forward and defense, where the surplus of players is significant. However, the most delicate situation that Rolston and the organization as a whole will need to deal with is in net.
David Leggio is back for another season with the club but will have some interesting company this season. Rookies Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp will each be entering their initial professional seasons but in a situation where two’s company and three is typically a crowd.
Leggio is the unquestioned starter after finding his way into Rolston’s good graces with consistently solid play last year. This was a pleasant surprise for the WNYer because of the contract given to AHL journeyman Drew MacIntyre who was signed to provide more stability as Buffalo’s third goaltender. However, one year removed from outperforming Jhonas Enroth in Portland, Leggio did it again to another goaltender who was tabbed as the superior talent.
The big step here is that Leggio is just one injury away from stepping in as the Sabres backup. This is likely something that the Sabres are at least somewhat concerned with because of the massive question mark that is Leggio’s ability at the NHL level. While he is a very good AHL goalkeeper, there is nothing that indicates how strong he would be filling time in the show.
Leggio’s presence will stabilize the Amerks crease and give the team a reliable starter for a majority of their regular season contests. He should also serve as a tutor of sorts for Lieuwen and Knapp. Where the situation gets sticky is the way in which the two rookies will be rotated.
Reports this season have the Gwinnett Gladiators exclusively affiliated with Phoenix compared to the dual affiliation they had with the Coyotes and Sabres last season. Now, that matters very little as there a plenty of fish in the ECHL pond for the Sabres/Amerks to hitch their wagon to. (Previous sentence is a nominee for most catch phrases used in one sentence.)
Regardless of which ECHL team the Amerks choose to send players to, Lieuwen and Knapp will each be lucky enough to enjoy time in that city. As of now the assumed rotation will be to have one serve as Leggio’s backup while the other gets primary minutes in the ECHL. After a certain period of time that set up would switch and the ECHL starter would move up to the AHL while the keeper behind Leggio would move to the Coast for more playing time.
Of course, that is in a perfect world and works under the assumption that the ECHL option will provide the proper level of competition for each player’s professional development. In addition, unforeseen injuries at the NHL level could call Leggio into action with the big club and leave both Lieuwen and Knapp in the AHL.
Entering the year, Lieuwen might be slightly ahead of Knapp in general. Knapp, while an impressive physical specimen doesn’t seem to have the agility and quickness to be as effective at the professional level. This is evident in the way he has approached the game since signing his contract; playing deeper in the net and relying on his size to frustrate shooters. At the prospects camp he certainly looked the part of an NHL goaltender, but had some technique issues that needed to be resolved.
As for Lieuwen, he is a bit more raw in terms of technique, but his battle level is incredibly impressive and allows him to make saves in game situations despite being less impressive in practice settings. Some of what he does is reminiscent of Tim Thomas in the way that both goalies are using their athleticism to simply get in the way, even if the save they make isn’t technically sound.
So, Lieuwen might be capable of stepping into a more in-depth role while still being something of a project in terms of the technical side of his game. Whereas Knapp needs a little more time to adjust his style to the situation he is now in. This is where Rolston’s job can get hairy.
He will need to determine who will benefit more from more game action in the ECHL and who will gain the most with less playing time but more time with the staff in Rochester. Little will probably be gleaned from which goalie starts as Leggio’s backup because, not only will the two rookies switch places, but the backup will be getting less game action than the other. Lieuwen is likely the one would adapt best to being thrown into the fire of regular season action, while Knapp could possibly be a better candidate to slow cook a bit.
At the end of the day it may not matter much. In a perfect world, each rookie will spend an equal amount of time in the Coast and in Rochester as to ensure equal development. With 76 games on the schedule, Leggio might be slated for 50 with the rookies each getting 13. Again, that is without any unforeseen injuries, trades or anything else that could potentially shake the goaltending landscape.
Simply put, this is going to be a difficult scenario to handle because of the two young prospects involved, the need to cultivate a proper development track and the rather limited playing time options each will be exposed to. It’s unlikely that Leggio will play 50 games on the nose with Lieuwen and Knapp each getting 13 games without a single hiccup along the way. One of the two will end up with a larger piece of the pie than the other. What is most important is that the development plan is followed, even if that means one spends more time in the AHL or ECHL than the other.
What will be fun to see is how each handles their introduction to professional hockey and, more importantly, if one of these players holds the keys to the future of the Sabres franchise.