While the Sabres didn’t lose Linus Ullmark to the Vegas expansion draft, Buffalo’s goaltending pipeline remains a weak point within the organization; something that will need to be addressed this summer.
It appears evident that Cal Petersen will exercise his right as a free agent and sign with one of the league’s other 30 clubs. UPDATE: Jason Botterill confirmed today that Petersen will test free agency, adding that he doesn’t expect Petersen to sign with the Sabres.
That leaves the Sabres with only Jonas Johansson and
restricted free agent Jason Kasdorf (edit: Kasdorf still has a year left) in the pipeline. With Ullmark set to graduate to full-time duty as Robin Lehner’s backup, the Sabres will need to get to work on finding help in net.
Count on the draft being the first step towards remedying the situation. The Sabres will draft at least one goaltender this weekend and may have been slated to spend a late round pick on a second had they not shipped their sixth round pick to Vegas as part of the expansion draft. Spending a pick on Jake Oettinger or Keith Petruzzelli (profiled in Kris Baker’s draft preview) would provide the Sabres a high value prospect to groom over the next couple of seasons. Both fit the blueprint of a modern NHL goaltender; a big body that can move well and both would instantly upgrade Buffalo’s goaltending depth.
Beyond the draft, the Sabres could use a few assets to take on key minutes in Rochester and to push Lehner and Ullmark. At the very least, the Sabres need to acquire one goalie this summer. Kasdorf is most likely to be shuttling between Rochester and Cincinnati, if not taking permanent residence with the Cyclones after a rough rookie season. A goaltender to work in tandem with Johansson in Rochester, if not a player capable of ascending to a higher level with additional growth, will be needed.
The short-term fix would be to find an AHL vet who could play in tandem with Johansson while backfilling the pipeline through the draft. But given the overwhelming need for talent behind Lehner and the questions over his future with the team, finding someone who offers long-term support is the better choice.
Despite being a thin year for free agents, a handful of decent options are available to Botterill and the Sabres. The best of which being Capitals prospect Pheonix Copley. Free agency doesn’t offer up too many other ideal options, but the following list is compiled of a handful of targets who would fit both a long and short-term need.
Pheonix Copley – He’s an unrestricted free agent but is still waivers exempt for the coming season, meaning the Sabres would retain a great deal of flexibility with him as they feel out the backup position. Copley’s only seen two NHL games but has amassed an impressive AHL resume since signing out of Michigan Tech. He had a stellar season between Chicago and Hershey and has more than enough upside to challenge for NHL minutes this season and beyond.
Copley is the ideal choice to provide the Sabres with a capable AHL asset who also still has the growth potential to impact the NHL roster. Unlike signing an AHL vet who would simply serve the farm club, Copley would be an affordable asset who would drastically improve the upper end of Buffalo’s goaltending pipeline.
Scott Wedgewood – Wedgewood has been something of a forgotten asset in New Jersey despite continually improving each and every year. He hasn’t managed to break through with the big club but with Keith Kincaid likely headed for free agency, the RFA has a chance to step in behind Cory Schneider. Wedgewood would need to be acquired via trade as his RFA status would make signing him to an offer sheet fairly pointless as any offer would be matched by the Devils. However, if he were to be available, he’d be an intriguing pick up with a fair bit of upside.
Zane McIntrye – Another long shot as McIntyre might just have surpassed Malcom Subban in the Bruins crease. McIntyre is also a restricted free agent so he’d need to be a trade acquisition but he’d offer plenty of upside and would be a perfect asset to insert as Rochester’s starter for next year.
Darcy Kuemper – A reclamation project in the truest sense, Keumper peaked in 2012-13 when he posted a 1.88 GAA and .934 SV% with Iowa and chipped in a 2.08 GAA and .916 SV% in six games for the Wild. He’s regressed since then and lost his hold on the goalie of the future moniker in Minnesota. Giving him the chance to step into a role with the Amerks with less pressure than an NHL gig may help kickstart his career. If nothing else he’d be a good stop-gap as Jason Botterill restocks the goaltending pipeline.
Marek Mazanec – The RFA has been supplanted by Juuse Saros in the Preds pecking order and would likely be a cheap acquisition, potentially even via an unmatched offer sheet if the chips fell the right way. Mazanec has been a steady contributor at the AHL level and would be a slot in right behind Ullmark on Buffalo’s depth chart.
Mike Condon – Condon only makes sense as a backup for Lehner as signing him for Rochester wouldn’t likely be something Condon would go for. He may not be interested in a backup role either but if for some reason Botterill feels he needs to keep Ullmark in Rochester and upgrade his backup goaltender, Condon could be a great fit.
AHL Vets – If a short-term solution is choice for the Sabres there are a few AHL vets with strong resumes who are worth investing in. Mike McKenna just wrapped up a run to the Calder Cup Final and has carved out a lengthy minor league career. He’d be a great mentor for Jonas Johnasson while providing the Amerks with a reliable AHL keeper.
Jeremy Smith is another proven minor league goaltender who had a respectable 2016-17 and is just a year removed from a stellar 2015-16 season split between Providence and Iowa. He finally broke through for NHL action in Colorado but with poor results. That may be a result of Colorado’s historically bad season but it does create questions of how effective Smith would be if called upon for emergency duty with the big club.
The weak free agent class doesn’t inspire much confidence in the ability to snag help without exploring the trade market. But if Botterill is able to pull Copley away from Washington it would be a major coup for the new GM.