Uncertain contracts leaves Murray with decisions to make in the crease

It’s likely that the goalie of the future for the Buffalo Sabres hasn’t yet pulled on the uniform for a NHL game. That player may be in the organization already, but there’s a good chance that Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth don’t ultimately factor into Tim Murray’s future plans.

Both Neuvirth and Enroth entered the season on the last year of their contract with unrestricted free agency looming in the offseason and unless he gets into five games this season, Matt Hackett will join them in unrestricted free agency.

While Hackett’s situation is murky at best, the Sabres could conceivably lose three of the eight goaltenders they have in the system, of which six are currently under contract. That leaves Murray with an odd predicament as the deadline and offseason approach.

Not only does Murray need to determine which goaltender, between Enroth and Neuvirth, he wants to commit more time to along with evaluating Hackett and Lieuwen, the latter will enter restricted free agency this summer.

Tim Murray will most definitely be a seller at the deadline, this much we know. There’s a chance that he may move some assets early, but given the team’s performance, it would appear that he needs to wait to try and leverage as much from a bad roster as possible. Buffalo’s historically bad performance this season has been devastating for their goaltender’s stat lines. Both Enroth and Neuvirth have been victims of Buffalo’s historically bad systematic play in the defensive zone and the pair have typically swapped spots as the team’s statistical leader when their counterpart is between the pipes.

Where it gets interesting is the decision making process for Murray. Does he trade the better of the two, knowing that he will likely be searching for a goalie of the future elsewhere while maximizing return? Or does he choose to keep the player who is performing at a higher level despite the ability to get more in a trade? If his deals last year are any indication, it will be the player that maximizes his value.

Neither goaltender’s numbers jump off the page and that’s to be expected given how bad the team has been. However, each has enjoyed a strong stretch of play at different times during the year. Enroth has done more to establish himself after carrying the team through their mid-November and December winning streak. Enroth went 9-2-0 during the stretch while posting a .934 save percentage and 2.19 GAA. His play prior to that run and in the games after it were far from sterling as he was responsible for only two wins in 16 total appearances.

Enroth’s hot streak was triggered after Neuvirth left the team’s game against San Jose with an injury in the first period. Prior to his injury, Neuvirth had exhibited strong play despite the lack of support from the players in front of him. He posted a save percentage above .940 in six of his first ten games including a three-game stretch with a .950 average.

While their strong play has been more than encouraging, their lesser performances have been in-step with the poor performances of the Sabres as a whole. Unfortunately the latter has outnumbered the former this season.

 

Where this leaves Murray is with a pair of capable NHL netminders on expiring deals with another pair of prospects that will be searching for a new contract and assurances on where they stand in the organization’s future plans. There are only two sure things in Buffalo’s goaltending pipeline; Andrey Makarov will be back next season and Linus Ullmark will be arriving from Sweden to begin his entry level contract.

So, at the very least, Makarov and Ullmark will be splitting duties in Rochester next year while the question mark looms large for the big club.

Even with his ups and downs, Enroth appears to be the more attractive option on the whole considering his lengthy win streak and superb shootout record. He would be a phenomenal compliment to Kari Lehtonen in Dallas and there has also been some smoke regarding the Sabres and Wild chatting about his availability – although Elliotte Friedman did his best to put that rumor to rest.

Minnesota would be a terrific destination for Enroth as he would not only serve as an upgrade for a club that’s been struggling to keep the puck out, but he’d have a fair opportunity to get an extension from the Wild depending on his performance. Murray would not only have the opportunity to turn one of his expiring goaltenders into future assets (more than likely draft picks) but he could even work on taking Niklas Backstrom back from the Wild in order to give Chuck Fletcher some additional cap relief for future deals.

Granted, Backstrom is barely a replacement-level goalie at this point and you could potentially argue that any one of Buffalo’s current farm hands would provide the same, if not better, results that Backstrom would provide should he be acquired in some sort of cap relief deal. What makes Backstrom intriguing to me is that he would let the Sabres further evaluate their goaltending prospects as he plays out the final year of his contract in Buffalo.

Assuming that Enroth is indeed the player that Murray chooses to move, it would be likely that Neuvirth would receive a one or two-year extension this summer. Without acquiring another veteran goalie, the Sabres would be left with Neuvirth and one of Makarov, Lieuwen or Hackett as the backup entering next year. Considering the Sabres are expected to begin turning the corner after the 2015 draft, the Sabres would hardly be sporting a goaltending tandem that would inspire much confidence heading into the first year of what’s supposed to be the franchise’s turnaround.

However, with Ullmark ready to make his North American debut, I could see the Sabres moving on from both Lieuwen and Hackett in favor of Makarov and Ullmark as their mail carriers in Rochester. Not only would shedding the former give the Sabres more wiggle room organizationally, it would give the latter pair a chance to see the lion’s share of the work in Rochester. Meanwhile, Neuvirth and whichever veteran they choose to pair with him would serve as a tandem for the Sabres over the next season or two.

There will be options available in free agency as well, should Murray choose not to take on salary (Backstrom) or promote one of his current farm hands as Josh Harding (question marks and all), Antti Niemi and Thomas Griess are all pending unrestricted free agents. Finding some sort of tandem between one of those three and Neuvirth could give the Sabres a competitive pair of goaltenders to begin their turnaround with.

The path Murray will choose to follow has yet to be laid at this point. He could conceivably keep both of his goalies straight into the summer and make a determination on the future on July 1. However, given the assets at his disposal I could see the Sabres goaltending pipeline undergo a great deal of change ahead of next season.

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