At long last, time is winding down on the Sabres season. The marathon trek to the league basement is all but complete at this point as the Sabres hold a six-point advantage over the Arizona Coyotes for the right to the 20% odds at the NHL Draft Lottery.
One position that is still a question mark is goaltender. I’ve touched on this previously, researching some of the goaltenders who might become available this summer on the trade market. I won’t be surprised to see Murray use his second first round pick as currency to acquire a goaltender – perhaps he’ll follow some of my advice and chase Frederik Andersen or John Gibson – but he’s also expected to build the backend of the pipeline along the way.
With word coming today from Bob McKenzie that the Sabres are expected to be a front runner for Matt O’Connor’s services once BU’s season comes to a close, it would appear that the goaltending pipeline will be anything but shallow heading into the 2015-16 season.
O’Connor has had a very strong season with BU this year and while he would want NHL minutes right away (a likely selling point for his NHL deal), he’s going to need some time in the minors before he’s truly NHL ready. Knowing that O’Connor would likely be playing in the AHL come the fall adds another layer to a somewhat complicated goaltending depth chart.
Linus Ullmark will be making his way to North America next year to begin the clock on his professional contract. He’ll join Andrey Makarov in Rochester to start the year and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be alone in the Blue Cross Arena crease.
Matt Hackett ticked another game off the eight, 30-minute appearances he needed to get in this season to remain a restricted free agent. Hackett, despite a somewhat shaky start against the Capitals, has shown some promise in his limited play this season. I’m a fan of his game and I’m rooting for his rights to be retained although it seems unlikely.
Hackett moves very well in net and isn’t afraid to play an aggressive game. He’s not unlike Ryan Miller in some respects when it comes to the athletic style he employs and that’s exactly the type of goalie I like. His injury history and lack of consistent play since arriving in Buffalo has put him behind the eight-ball.
Hackett’s future is already in doubt and it would all but be sealed if the Sabres are to sign O’Connor. Even if Hackett’s play over Buffalo’s final games was superb, O’Connor’s presence in an already crowded Rochester crease would push Hackett out of the equation.
While Hackett has shown the chops to play at the NHL level (at times), his resume is hardly that of an NHL goaltender. However, if Murray went out and acquired a goaltender with a bit more experience (think Antti Niemi), it wouldn’t be hard to see a younger option like Hackett stepping into the backup role. That would require Hackett to be considered the next man up, of course.
One thing is for sure, Anders Lindback won’t be back. While his play since arriving has been impressive, his resume simply is not that which a GM would want to sign. Maybe he stays in North America, but I would be very surprised to see him signing anywhere besides the SHL or KHL. Not only does his resume reflect that of a goaltender lacking in many traits necessary for a quality starter, I believe his numbers would decline sharply as the Sabres improve in front of him and begin to limit the number of shots they allow. Many of Lindback’s big performances were buoyed by teams peppering him from the outside. As those shots decrease, I feel that his save percentage would as well.
Chad Johnson is under contract for next season and presumably will serve as the primary backup in Buffalo. Johnson could certainly wind up as a veteran presence in Rochester depending on the moves Murray makes in the offseason, but that would require a number of factors to come together just right. I expect to see Johnson in blue and gold next year, perhaps even seeing an increase in playing time depending which route Murray chooses to take.
My preferred route is for Murray to acquire a young goaltender who is ready, or close to being ready for a regular NHL role. Martin Jones is probably the best example of this as he’s been rumored to be on his way out of Los Angelese for a greater role elsewhere. Not unlike Jonathan Bernier before him. Jones doesn’t have to be the answer for the Sabres but simply think of him as the mold I’d like to see Buffalo’s goaltender cast from. A young, promising prospect who has forged a solid resume with increasing responsibility over the last few seasons. Perhaps he isn’t ready for a 65-game workload yet, but he’s on his way there.
One option I’m particularly fond of is pursuing one of Anaheim’s goaltenders. John Gibson is seen as the goalie of the future despite the strong play of Freddie Andersen over the past two seasons. Gibson is likely to be an expensive acquisition but he also holds the highest ceiling of the many young goaltenders the Sabres might consider. I’d also be game for seeing if Andersen is available should the Ducks be prepared to let Gibson step into the starting role.
It’s my opinion that the best benefit for both the short and long term outlook of the Sabres is to make a strong offer for one of the league’s up-and-coming young netminders. Whether that’s one of Anaheim’s keepers or not, finding a young goaltender under the age of 27 would give the Sabres a player who can step in next season and being working towards a long career as Buffalo’s goaltender.
Signing a veteran may wind up being a necessity, especially if the Sabres wind up with a goalie who is closer to prospect status as opposed to being closer to starter status. However, there’s no reason to waste more than three years on any veteran they sign, especially considering the free agent goalie class this year.
For example, if Murray was able to move a package for Martin Jones and then signed Antti Niemi to a two-year deal, it would set up a very nice transition between the very unsettled situation today through to the time that Jones would be taking over as the full-time starter.
There are a lot of factors at play here. There’s no guarantee that Buffalo will wind up signing O’Connor, just as there’s no way to know the plan for Hackett at this time. Hackett could just as easily get pushed out by Murray signing O’Connor as he could play out his four games and accept his RFA tender this summer. All of that doesn’t even directly affect what would happen with the big club, either.
I’d love to see Hackett get one more look, even if that means starting at the AHL level, but at this point I feel like what makes the most sense is to add O’Connor to the mix in while utilizing their other first round pick to acquire a legitimate prospect ahead of the draft.
Either way, you can pretty much count on either Hackett or O’Connor to slot in as an AHL goaltender for the Sabres organization along with Ullmark and Makarov. It’s likely that one of those players would be loaned to another AHL club or possibly and ECHL club, although that wouldn’t do much for development. As silly as it may sound, the player who would be most likely to be loaned might actually be Makarov simply because he doesn’t appear to be much more than a solid depth option compared to other organizational assets.
The big club can be a little more complicated since it’s hard to see any of Buffalo’s current goaltenders as a full time backup other than Hackett. I do feel that the Sabres will have some combination of a veteran and a young, promising goaltender as their combo for next season.
It’s hard to say exactly who will fit into those very important roles, but if one of the league’s promising youngsters is in the mix, Murray will have the club on the right track.