No team wants or plans to lose their starting goaltender, certainly not on the first day of the regular season. But that was precisely what the Buffalo Sabres had to deal with when Robin Lehner went down just a period and a half into the 2015-16 season.
Chad Johnson stepped into Lehner’s role shortly after the injury but it’s been the play of Linus Ullmark that has spurred the Sabres push from 2-6 to a .500 record. Ullmark is just months removed from double hip surgery and is playing in his first season in North America, making his impressive play something of a surprise.
Ullmark has played inspired hockey, compiling a 4-2 record, 2.45 GAA and .924 SV% through six starts. He was 1-2-0 with a 2.72 GAA and .932 SV% in his brief spell with Rochester prior to being recalled. Ullmark’s play has shown fans and the organization what is coming to them in the near future between the pipes while stirring a debate whether or not he should remain with the team long term once Lehner returns.
We’ll likely see at least two more weeks of Ullmark in a Sabres jersey while Lehner finishes his recovery, so a decision isn’t imminent. Not only does Lehner have a couple more weeks until he’s healthy, but there’s a good chance he’s sent on a conditioning assignment before returning to the Sabres full time. This affords Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma a little more time before making a call on their young netminder.
Although Ullmark’s play has buoyed the Sabres’ early success, the most prudent decision for the organization to make will be to return Ullmark to Rochester once Robin Lehner is healthy.
It’s easy to say the Chad Johnson is the most expendable of the three as he’s filled in admirably but he’s certainly not a world beater in terms of the NHL landscape. It would also be quite surprising to see him claimed if the Sabres chose to waive him for the purposes of sending him to Rocheter. However, Ullmark hasn’t yet played 10 professional games in North America, let alone the NHL. Plus, it would be bad asset management to keep a young netminder who happens to be waiver exempt.
It’s fair to argue that Murray and Bylsma should be keeping the players who give them the best chance to win every night. But even if Ullmark and Lehner played as a tandem rather than as a true starter and backup unit, you’re pushing Ullmark into a position that isn’t likely the best for his overall development.
The Sabres are a long way from the last two seasons of storing prospects in Rochester despite their potential impact at the NHL level. Clearly Ullmark has shown that he’s a capable NHL netminder. However he isn’t polished to the point of being ready to take the reins at the NHL level either. Giving him the rest of the season, at least, to grow in the AHL would serve to benefit both the Sabres and Ullmark long term.
Rochester provides Ullmark with a slightly more controlled environment to develop. He will see a better balance of games than he would in Buffalo whether as a backup to Lehner or playing in tandem with his fellow countryman. Even in the event that he supplanted Lehner as the starter, he’d likely be doing so at the expense of the areas of his game that need improvement.
He could stand to improve his ability to recover from saves as he isn’t lightning quick to recover at times, particularly if the play changes direction. Certain pieces of technique in terms of movement and basic save selection can be cultivated well in Rochester. Keep in mind that Ullmark isn’t far removed from hip surgery, keeping his recovery in mind is important for the organization.
If nothing else, the Sabres shouldn’t be pushing Ullmark to become the guy overnight. He’s only 22 years old, his influence on the organization will come down the line. Rushing a goaltender into an NHL job is hardly a recipe for success. Ullmark has shown the foundation that has made him such and intriguing, valuable prospect over the last few seasons and there’s more to come in the future.
You don’t need to look far for a perfect example of turning a goaltending prospect into a cornerstone. The Sabres took a late-round pick from the 1999 draft, gave him a time in Rochester to grow his game before calling on him to become the franchise’s starter. That guy’s name is Ryan Miller.
There isn’t a need for Ullmark to steal the show and carry the Sabres on a Cup run or anything along those lines. Let him grow in Rochester at a measured pace so when the time comes for him to step in full time, he’s ready.