There was no escaping the Jimmy Vesey debate last year, especially after the Sabres acquired his rights from Nashville. Will he or won’t he sign? He’s playing with Eichel in the summer, is that a sign? Now Sabres fans are enduring the same angst as they wait for news regarding Cal Petersen.
Should he choose to leave school, Petersen could become a free agent on June 1 and test the waters around the league to see which feels best. Like with Vesey, it’s a right he’s entitled to via the CBA.
Aside from Petersen, his family, advisor and maybe Tim Murray, no one really knows what’s going on at this point in time. But it stands to reason that the longer Petersen goes without a contract, the more likely it is that he’s going to hit the open market.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he chooses to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, as we’re now two days removed from the end of the Sabres season and five days removed from Petersen’s exit from the Frozen Four with news of a contract yet to break. It’s not out of the question that Petersen would still sign with the Sabres, it just seems unlikely the further away from the end of the season we get.
Even though Buffalo appears committed to Robin Lehner, there’s no reason to think Petersen wouldn’t find the situation here appealing. Lehner and Linus Ullmark are both restricted free agents and Buffalo only features Jonas Johnasson in the goaltending pipeline alongside Petersen. Unless Lehner gets some high-cost extension this summer (unlikely), the path to NHL action in Buffalo isn’t particularly crowded.
Some Sabres fans feel Petersen should be offered the starting job immediately, not only as a way to convince him to sign but because they see him as the best possible option. Offering NHL action over the final two games of the year would have been a decent carrot to dangle for the young goaltender, but giving him a full-time NHL gig from the get-go is far from a recipe for long term success.
Petersen’s play at Notre Dame was nothing short of impressive. He started over 90-straight games and was a stalwart for the Irish over the last two-plus seasons. He’s a tantalizing prospect who would inject a ton of talent into Buffalo’s goaltending pipeline. But to think that he could jump right from the NCAA to the NHL is foolhardy. However, it’s worthwhile to note that he may ultimately sign with a team who promises more NHL minutes in a shorter period of time.
This isn’t a reflection on Petersen’s ability, rather a reflection on the time it takes goaltenders to grow from prospects into bonafide NHL starters. Petersen has become a tremendous talent and is one of the shining lights in Buffalo’s prospect pipeline at the moment. Looking at this strictly from a Sabres perspective, putting Petersen in Rochester to start next season would allow him to grow at a measured pace while Lehner and (likely) Ullmark carry the load in Buffalo. For a netminder coming out of college, a measured workload seems to be the best way to ensure proper development.
Looking at the current crop of NCAA alums in the NHL today, not one goaltender played less than a full AHL season before stepping into a larger role. Some enjoyed shorter stays than others. But for the most part, NCAA goalies have seen at least three seasons in the minors before making the jump to the big club.
The corresponding chart reflects the time it took various NCAA goalies to break into the NHL full-time. There are some variances from player to player as some earned spot duty along the way before truly stepping into a full-time job. What this really underscores is how Petersen would likely need at least a couple of seasons to grow comfortable with the pro game before jumping to the Sabres roster. So those fans who think he’d be a capable replacement for both of Buffalo’s goaltenders ought to take a closer look at what past experience tells us.
Comparing timelines between goalies is difficult as Andrew Hammond really only saw a year-and-a-half in Binghamton before being pushed into action with the Senators. His NHL debut was a good one as he spurred a late push to the playoffs for the Sens but he’s only played 30 games in the NHL since that initial 24 game run. So while Hammond’s time in the minors was shorter than Cam Talbot’s it doesn’t necessarily indicate he was more or less NHL ready.
Ben Bishop is a terrific case study for NCAA goalies. He was a third round pick but gained considerable attention as he led Maine to a pair of Frozen Fours. Even still, he signed his first pro contract in 2007-08 but didn’t step into a full-time NHL role until 2013-14, a span of time that saw him play 32 NHL games and get traded twice.
Ryan Miller is likely more familiar to Sabres fans and although his AHL seasoning was impacted by the 2004-05 NHL lockout, he played a total of 170 games in the AHL before earning a full-time role with the Sabres.
It’s easy to be seduced by Petersen’s incredible streak of starts and the strong play he provided to the Irish along the way, but assuming he should be taking on an NHL workload immediately is short-sighted, especially behind Buffalo’s patchwork blueline. Perhaps he’d fare better in limited time behind a strong roster, but throwing a young goaltender to the wolves is a recipe for disaster.
Where Petersen winds up is hard to handicap. While it seems unlikely Buffalo is his choice, it isn’t completely out of the question that he still signs with the team that drafted him. However, Chicago is probably an awfully attractive option for someone who went to school just down the Thruway in South Bend and who grew up not far away in Des Moines. The Blackhawks have a firmly entrenched starter in Corey Crawford but Scott Darling is primed to walk as a free agent this summer, giving any new acquisition the inside track to become Crawford’s understudy.
Aside from perhaps Dallas, there aren’t any teams with glaring needs at the NHL level. Arizona, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Los Angeles have somewhat thin pipelines but all have serious number one goalies as well. While I might handicap Chicago as the early favorite to land Petersen, I still think Buffalo is an attractive option as any when it comes to immediate playing time and long-term outlook.
Ideally news on Petersen’s choice comes sooner rather than later. Having to wait to see what decision college free agents like Vesey, Mike Reilly, Kevin Hayes or Justin Schultz made have always been drawn out. At the very least, knowing he’s testing the market and looking elsewhere would allow Sabres fans to turn their attention to other subjects.
Of course if he chooses to sign elsewhere hot takes on making him the starter right away will turn into hot takes regarding the CBA. So pick your poison.
Moral: Think really hard before you draft NCAA players. Otherwise you’re just developing future Blackhawks and Rangers.