More thoughts on the Sabres solution in goal

A short while ago I took a deep dive into the route the Sabres might take when it comes to their goaltending next season. I settled on the trade route being my preferred option for Sabres’ GM Tim Murray to take.

Buffalo’s goaltending pipeline isn’t too shabby with Linus Ullmark set to make his North American debut this fall alongside established farmhand, Andrey Makarov. Cal Petersen is still a couple years away from a professional contract but was impressive as a freshman at Notre Dame while 2014 draft pick Jonas Johansson’s big frame makes him an intriguing prospect.

The situation above those players, however, is quite murky. Chad Johnson is the only goaltender with more than one game of NHL experience under contact and he slots in as a backup at best. Since posting my thoughts on the goaltenders (linked above), the Sabres have fallen out of the Matt O’Connor sweepstakes and Matt Hackett’s knee injury prevented him from playing enough games to retain restricted free agent status.

With O’Connor out of the picture and Hackett likely to join him, Murray should at least have a better idea of who will be in the crease in Rochester this season. The Amerks could stand to have a veteran AHL presence in the locker room and on the ice, but we’ll have to see who is available for that type of role.

My opinion on Murray’s direction remains unchanged (like the Browns). The best route, in my opinion, is to acquire a young goaltender who has shown he’s capable of growing into a dependable starter in the league. Even with Ullmark showing impressive chops and Petersen growing into a fine prospect, the Sabres need more stability at the top of their depth chart. Stability that also provides them with an outlook beyond the next few seasons.

Antti Neimi is a name that’s circled about (and that I mention in that post) as a veteran the Sabres could chase as a band-aid while their other goalies develop. I don’t like this train of thought for two reasons. First, they’ll likely need to overpay for his services. Both in term and money. While the money won’t be an issue for the next few seasons, the Sabres shouldn’t be tying themselves to an aging veteran goaltender for too long. Second, even if he’s signed to a shorter two or three-year deal, that leaves the Sabres with a question mark in net as their core begins to enter their prime. Ideally the Sabres will have a strong presence in net when players like Zemgus Girgensons, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are entering their prime.

That brings us back to the topic of acquiring a goaltender with both promise and the ability to step into a significant role next year. That list is woefully short as Martin Jones and John Gibson are pretty much the beginning and the end. Cal Pickard, Malcom Subban, Andrei Vasilevskiy (good luck getting him) and Phillipp Grubauer are also potential targets depending on how you cut their respective team’s situation but are also lacking in NHL experience when compared to players like Jones or Gibson.

What makes the proposition difficult is the inherent price that will come with acquiring a quality goaltender. Tampa Bay gave up Cory Conacher (while his value was high) and a second round pick to acquire Ben Bishop. The Sabres would be looking at dealing the 31st pick at a minimum ahead of this year’s draft without even considering any additional compensation.

What I can’t see happening is selling the 20th selection in the draft for a goalie (unless we’re talking about John Gibson). Using the 31st or 50th selection? More than fine with me at this point. Even coupling one of those second round selections with a prospect is an agreeable decision when you consider how crowded Buffalo’s prospect pool is before adding three more top-60 selections to the mix. Using one of those picks and a prospect to shore up the shortcomings in net seems like a no-brainer to me.

The player I want is Gibson. He has the size and skillset that I value in a netminder and while he’d cost a boatload (read: the 20th pick plus at least one other valuable piece), he’d provide the Sabres with a quality piece in goal for the long term. A cheaper option that would only require a second round pick would be more than okay with me as well; I just know that Gibson is a player I’d love to see in blue and gold.

The trend away from securing a franchise goaltender is growing league-wide as more teams are finding success with goaltenders whose path to the NHL is not woven from the same cloth of that of someone like Carey Price. The statistical argument that you don’t necessarily need a blue chip goaltender is strong as it’s becoming easier to find a capable goalie as opposed to a phenomenal one to build your team around.

However, despite this league-wide trend, three of the eight teams remaining in the second round could qualify as clubs who aren’t necessarily married to their netminder – Minnesota perhaps being on the fence given Devan Dubnyk’s play – and only three of the teams ousted in the first round could fit in that category based on my observation.

Dubnyk, however, is a case study in “finding a goalie anywhere” as opposed to locking up a cornerstone long term. Jimmy Howard being supplanted by Petr Mrazek, the Winnipeg Jets in general and Andrew Hammond in Ottawa all backup the claim that maybe the old way of filling your crease needs to be revisted.

My argument is to look at the teams left and see how their cornerstone netminders have served them. While Corey Crawford was somewhat unheralded prior to his Cup win, he’s among the league’s highest paid goaltenders today. Lundqvist, Bishop, Price and Holtby are all hand-picked goaltenders for their respective franchises. So, while the numbers reflect the ability to compete without the need for a true cornerstone, I look at the past five Cup Finals and see only one (Niemi vs. Leighton) that truly qualifies as a matchup that was lacking a pair of franchise goalies while the Cup finals between 2009 and 2005 lockout featured at least one.

I respect the argument that other investments can be made besides than the goal crease, but I’d much rather have confidence between the pipes than wind up with a question mark as Buffalo moves out of their rebuild.

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