Who Can the Sabres Target as Linus Ullmark’s Partner?

Three years removed from trading a first round pick for a player they hoped would cement their future at the position, the Buffalo Sabres goal crease remains in flux.

Linus Ullmark is poised to step into a full-time NHL role for the first time but who will partner with him for at least the 2018-19 season is still a question. Despite holding control over his RFA rights, it seems increasingly doubtful that Robin Lehner will be back in Buffalo for another season.

Ullmark’s progression has been steady to this point in his career and there’s no doubt he’s ready for this promotion. However, he’s never handled starter’s minutes at the NHL level. So it stands to reason that Jason Botterill will want to ease Ullmark into a starters role, though his 20 game foray in 2015-16 should provide some baseline for the workload he can handle.

There is something working in Ullmark’s favor here and that is he is no stranger to heavy workloads. He saw the majority of minutes with Modo in the SHL and has been a horse for the Amerks for the past two seasons. He’s played 55 and 44 games over the last two years and he led the AHL in minutes (3201:55), shots faced (1678) and saves (1525) in 2016-17.

What’s unknown is the number of games the Sabres hope to give Ullmark this season. Do they hope to get him in upwards of 50 games? Or is a 50/50 split a more manageable workload for a rookie goaltender playing behind a roster which is expected to see quite a bit of upheaval?

The only scenario I think we can fully rule out is Ullmark playing as a true backup. Even if Lehner is brought back, I doubt Ullmark gets into fewer than 35 games with his partner getting the lion’s share. The Sabres want to see if Ullmark is indeed their goaltender of the future and they won’t be able to accurately evaluate that if he gets a backup’s share of the games.

I’m hoping to see the Sabres pick up another younger netminder who can play in tandem with Ullmark. A peer who can push him for time while also opening another avenue to find a number one goaltender. Signing a veteran that they can string along on a one or two-year deal would be an acceptable option, but I think the younger route offers the Sabres a better long-term outlook, especially with a goaltender market as thin as this year’s.

The Vets

Jaroslav Halak

If you asked me in September, Halak would have been my preferred choice to pair with Ullmark for 2018-19. My opinion on the matter has changed a bit since then as Halak – and the rest of the Islanders – struggled in 2018-19. He posted respectable numbers during 2015-16 when he was stellar for Team Europe in the World Cup, but he’s been streaky ever since.

When Halak is on, he’s on. If the Sabres got that version of Halak, he’d be a perfect partner for Ullmark to play in tandem with. Though it seems that those pockets of strong play are coming few and farther between these days. It should be noted that the Islanders were allergic to defending last season so there is reason to believe Halak will enjoy some sort of resurgence with a new club in 2018-19.

Cam Ward

When I tweeted about the possibility of the Sabres signing Ward it was interpreted as if I wanted the Sabres to sign him. That is not the case. Ward has been below average for at least the last five seasons. Six probably. How Carolina has been unable to find a suitable replacement is astounding but also quite satisfying.

 

Kari Lehtonen

Lehtonen is an interesting target. He was part of Dallas’ two-headed nightmare when they couldn’t buy a save with a pair of toxic contracts to boot. His baseline numbers aren’t great and most of his underlying numbers are worse (-17.21 GSAA in 2016-17). But he had something of a bounce back season which included a .633 quality start percentage, which is good! As far as backups go you could certainly do worse.

What I can’t get past is his penchant for allowing massive head scratching goals. If you felt like tearing your hair out over weak goals over the last two years, you’d be in for a trip.

Anton Khudobin & Michael Hutchinson

This pair share a spot on this list as neither has held starting duties but enjoyed a strong 2018-19 campaigns.

I’ve never been particularly fond of Khudobin and while his 2017-18 was respectable, I don’t trust that he has the chops to take on a larger role. This was the first year since 2013-14 that he was really on, and at 32 years old I don’t think he fits the mold of a guy the Sabres are seeking to partner with Ullmark.

Hutchinson’s overall resume isn’t all that much better than Khudobin’s. Khudobin took on a pretty significant role for the Bruins for a stretch this season while Hutchinson toiled in the AHL for almost the entire year, setting the former apart by a bit. Granted, he was phenomenal for the Moose this season but his NHL play has always been so-so. He’s cracked a .910 SV% and the 2.50 GAA mark only once and his GSAA and quality start numbers don’t really tell a different story. Of the two, Hutchinson gives me a bit more confidence, but only just. When it comes to identifying a goalie who can handle upwards of 40 games, I’m not sure either fit the bill.

Jonathan Bernier 

Bernier is probably the best of this year’s UFA group and he’s growing on me as an option. His stock is probably a lot higher with fans because he had a few strong showings in Colorado’s series with the Preds. He’s an undersized goalie who plays a strong technical game, when he gets away from his technique is when he gets into trouble which certainly seemed to be the case at the end of his tenure with the Maple Leafs.

What’s attractive to me about Bernier is that he’s sniffed the 40-game plateau in each of the last two years in addition to his two seasons serving as the Leafs starter. His career has been solid but unspectacular and I don’t think he’s due much more than the $2.75m he made this year. As far as veterans go I think he’s the safest and the best bet for the Sabres.

Carter Hutton

Hutton is probably the hottest UFA goaltender on the market this year. He’s coming off a career season where he posted a .931 SV% and more impressively, a .731 quality start percentage and 15.09 GSAA. He had a tremendous year, buoying the Blues while Jake Allen struggled and setting himself up for what could be a big contract this summer.

I expect Hutton to be seeking big money and, more importantly, big term this summer. He’s only had one contract that surpassed $1m AAV and he’s never signed a deal longer than two years in his career, so he’ll be looking to cash in on his career year. As he should. For that reason alone, I don’t think he fits the mold the Sabres would be seeking in a veteran backup. Especially one who is 32 years old and whose career trajectory has never come close to the year he just enjoyed. He’ll want starters minutes and starters money.

Trade Targets

Juuse Saros

He’s not going anywhere. Move along.

Michal Neuvirth

Old friend Michal Neuvirth has had some durability issues the last few years and given that he’s only surpassed 40 games once in his career, there’s reason to question what kind of role he can fill for a team in need of some stability behind their young blue chipper.

However, Philly is going to be an interesting case to follow this summer as they could part ways with all three of their goalies. Neither Neuvirth nor Brian Elliott appeared to foster much confidence from the organization and Petr Mrazek seems poised to go without a qualifying offer. Neuvirth and Elliott have a year left on their respective deals and a team might just be able to swoop in with a low-ball offer to take one of them off the Flyers’ hands. Of that group, Neuvirth is the only one I’d consider pursuing.

I think his ugly 2016-17 campaign was the aberration and this year was a closer reflection of the goaltender he is. That is someone who is steady but unspectacular and if he can get on a run, can be frustrating to beat. Just ask Tim Murray. One reason I like Neuvirth is that his game is very fluid. He’s not a sloppy goalie and with the right coaching – which I think Andrew Allen can provide – he would be a terrific partner for Linus Ullmark.

David Rittich & Jon Gillies

Calgary is in an enviable position with three blue chips playing professionally last year; two of whom are on the cusp of earning more time in the crease. Mike Smith will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and it stands to reason the Flames will be hoping to groom his successor this season. Should that be the case, the odd man out could be on the trade block. It’s doubtful 2017 World Junior hero Tyler Parsons is part of that competition as he only just entered the professional ranks. But Gillies and Rittich will be competing for the starting job over the next 12-18 months.

Gillies and Rittich split time between Calgary and Stockton with Rittich showing better in his NHL minutes but was the weaker of the two, statistically, in the AHL. Both boast a ton of upside and are pretty even in nearly every aspect. Gillies is taller with a strong draft pedigree. Rittich has a longer professional resume as he was signed out of the Czech pro leagues two years ago. The issue here is that Calgary will be in no hurry to move either of these goaltenders, not without a big offer to sway their opinion. I suspect the Flames will sit on their duo until the spring at the earliest, waiting to make a determination on who is the heir apparent and who will be shipped out.

Tristan Jarry & Casey DeSmith

If there’s a team worth poaching a goaltender from this summer, it may be the Penguins. While the Pens depth chart isn’t brimming with goaltending prospects, there aren’t many teams with a 24-year old, two-time Stanley Cup champion locked in as their starter. So there’s a limited ceiling in Pittsburgh for goaltenders not named Matt Murray.

Both DeSmith and Jarry saw their fair share of time this season, playing in a similar rotation as Gillies and Rittich in Calgary. Of the two, Jarry boasts the better draft pedigree and paved his way to the backup gig to start the year thanks to an impressive 2016-17 with the Baby Pens. Despite being three-and-a-half years older, DeSmtih embarked on his pro career at the same time as Jarry and enjoyed an equally impressive 16-17 which translated into good returns at the NHL level this year.

With Murray locked in as the starter – and Botterill having plenty of familiarity with both – there’s a clear opportunity for the Sabres and Pens to work a deal. Exactly which goaltender they’d prefer to keep is tough to determine. Would Pittsburgh favor the 23-year old who they invested a second round pick into? Or does the late-blooming 26-year old offer them more in a backup role?

DeSmtih will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and will turn 28 prior to the outset of the 2019-20 season. That’s not dissimilar to the trajectory Cam Talbot took when he was acquired by the Oilers but the Sabres wouldn’t have nearly much ice time to devote to seeing what DeSmith has to offer as a full-time NHLer. The same could be said of the 23-year old Jarry but with more team control over his contract and more runway to work with from a development standpoint, Jarry gives the Sabres far more flexibility as they work to determine Ullmark’s long-term value while remaining competitive on a nightly basis.

Philipp Grubauer

Grubauer is going to be at the top of nearly every list of available goaltenders this summer as he’s done more than enough to prove he’s worthy of starter’s minutes and ready for the next step in his career. He’s undersized compared to the giants currently entering the league but he’s very polished in the positional and technical aspects of his game which more than makes up for any size issues he may encounter.

He would be a perfect addition for a goaltending deficient club as he’s pretty much a ready-made starter and is only 26 years old. However, he’s going to be expensive. Even after being replaced by Braden Holtby in these playoffs, the Capitals bargaining power isn’t going to be diminished that badly and Craig Custance recently noted that Grubauer will likely fetch a first round pick in the trade market. Additionally, if you’re acquiring Grubauer you’re doing it to get a true number one, not someone who might compete for time as your starter. And if you already have a goaltender you’re grooming to be a starter, you’re not spending a first round pick on his partner.

Pinpointing an ideal target isn’t quite as easy given the state of the goalie market this year. Robin Lehner was one of many goaltenders with starter caliber upside who were available in 2015. There aren’t quite so many ready-made deals this summer, meaning Jason Botterill will have to work a lot harder to acquire a goalie who is worth the price.

Of the list above, Jarry is probably the most intriguing option of the bunch to me. I feel the Sabres could get him for a relatively low price and that he’d offer quality competition for Ullmark while also providing a massive upgrade to the team’s goaltending pipeline. As veterans go, Bernier, Neuvirth and Hutchinson are the three who I’d be most interested in seeing acquired should Botterill determines that grabbing another young goalie works against his interests in developing Ullmark into a true number one.

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