The Buffalo Sabres are slowly growing an impressive stable of talented goaltenders at the NHL and minor league level. Their most recent addition was signing Nathan Lieuwen to an entry level contract, one year after he was drafted.
Lieuwen was an overage junior last year and there was even a chance that he could have been signed to a pro deal over last summer. However, he was sent back to the WHL to play big minutes and continue to develop. Now the 6’5” 20 year old will battle for playing time in Rochester with David Leggio and Connor Knapp.
The addition of Lieuwen gives the Sabres five goaltenders under contract and even more talented keepers who sit in limbo entering the offseason. Brad Eidsness was once a promising prospect through two seasons with North Dakota, but he was unseated by Aaron Dell and will likely not receive a contract from the Sabres. Buffalo also signed Jeff Jakaitis to a minor league deal in order to provide Gwinnett with some additional talent. Jakaitis seemed to show some real promise before getting shelved with a season ending injury. There is also the looming status of Drew MacIntyre, who will be a UFA this summer after a very underwhelming season in Rochester.
There is no reason for the Sabres to re-sign MacIntrye this season, but that doesn’t mean the goaltending pipeline won’t be clogged heading into 2012-13. With Ryan Miller the obvious leader of the pack and backed up by Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres also have impending UFA David Leggio along with Knapp and Lieuwen as AHL goaltenders.
There is no question as to who will hold the crease in the NHL. Miller and Enroth are a fine tandem and each had separate runs of impressive hockey last season. If an adequate schedule can be hammered out, there should be little doubt that each will receive plenty of playing time and contribute well.
As for the AHL, there is quite a bit more room for interpretation. Leggio proved that he has advanced to the level of being a solid AHL starter. Much like MacIntrye, Leggio seems to have the skills to be terrific at the AHL level but may not have the skill set to be an NHL regular. That isn’t a bad thing, however. Leggio is one of those veteran talents that are so important for the success of an AHL franchise. If he is to be re-signed (and he should), he will not only hold the fort as the Amerks’ starter, he should act as a sound role model for both Knapp and Lieuwen.
The presence of two tall and talented goalies at the AHL level is a very exciting development. With big goalies like Mike Smith, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo finding success, having a pair in the system is a big step forward for the Sabres (no pun intended). However, both are entering their first professional season and won’t be prepared to carry the load on their own. While a two-man platoon would certainly give each adequate playing time, it probably wouldn’t do much for their overall development. Even though Leggio is young, he has spent a few years toiling and earning his starting role. That is definitely a good quality to have and impart on two promising goaltending prospects.
Battling over one spot probably isn’t the best scenario for these two players, but the ability to be sent to the ECHL to continue playing isn’t a bad option. In fact, shuttling the pair between Rochester and Gwinnett would allow them to get an equal taste of backing up and playing at the AHL level while also getting the lion’s share of time down in the Coast. Just like the Sabres wanted their blue chip defensive prospects playing, rather than sitting in the press box, the same would be true here. The practice would just be at a lower level.
The final decision will be made between Ron Rolston, Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier. The smart money is probably on Knapp starting the year in Rochester with Lieuwen heading to the Coast to add a bit more polish to his game. His injury history and late draft year set him back in some respects, which seems to point towards starting in the ECHL vs. the AHL. However, finding a way to split time for both goaltenders may be the best policy.
Regardless, this is not a bad situation to be in. Buffalo has two young, talented and massive goaltenders entering their first professional season with an organization with a knack for developing great goaltenders. Knapp may have the better pedigree, while Lieuwen played slightly better competition. They will both be part of a deep pool of goaltenders and have a great goalie coach at their disposal. There is a good chance that one will act as the incumbent goalie of the future in a few short seasons.