Over-Thought: Sabres Need to Shop for College Free Agent Goalies

The final weeks before the deadline always seem to drag. Probably because the same rumors keep getting recycled, debunked and then re-reported. This week’s edition as rumor-heavy as you might expect two weeks out from the deadline, but I suspect next week’s will be chock-full of rumors.

Check out this week’s edition of 31 Thoughts here.

  1. One GM who could change the market over the next few days? Minnesota’s Paul Fenton. His team is still clinging to a playoff spot, but Mikko Koivu is out for the year. Ownership always pushes for the playoffs, but what do the Wild honestly think about their situation?

The Wild are bobbing in and out of a wild card spot and they’ve spent the last number of seasons as a playoff club unable to get over the hump. Having to get through Chicago or Nashville or the Blues at the height of their powers certainly didn’t help.

But now Minnesota’s core is beginning to age. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are both 34 and still have six years left on their deals, Jared Spurgeon is 29, Devan Dubnyk is 32 and Mikko Koivu is 35. They already parted ways with Nino Niederreiter and there have been rumors that Charlie Coyle may be on his way out. Both were already inching to their late-20s and both Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund are in the same spot. Coyle, Granlund and Zucker are hardly long in the tooth, so don’t misinterpret this as all doom and gloom for the Wild, but they’re probably approaching a period of transition. They’re not completely cooked when it comes to prosepcts but they’re not flush with young talent either. They always feel close but unable to push the right button to bring it all together. If they miss the playoffs this year I would suspect they’d be in the market for some fairly significant change come the summer.

  1. [Bob] Murray added that he told his group, “We have good players, [but] we just aren’t a good team right now.” That’s true, and it gives him an advantage if he does want to make moves. The Ducks have players who will appeal not just to contenders. Teams who are not going for it in 2019 will be interested in what he chooses to offer. For example, putting Cam Fowler (who does have limited protection) on the market would lead to a lengthy lineup, but I’m not convinced that’s where Murray wants to go. He’s going to get a lot of questions about his blue line.

I’m about one step away from putting Anaheim Ducks roster notifications on my phone. Fowler is now signed until he’s 34 at $6.5m which is a heavy enough ticket to turn me off to him as a target for the Sabres. Same goes for Adam Henrique, who at 29 and five more years left on his deal, doesn’t strike me a good fit for the build the Sabres are aiming for. But there’s a laundry list of names on Anaheim’s roster which would make the Sabres better in the long term. Ondrej Kase, Rikard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. If you’re a Sabres fan you can only hope that some of those guys get tossed on the trade block.

  1. Vancouver learned a lesson the hard way on Monday night — that, in what soon will be a 32-team league, goalies are the most precious of resources. Toronto was surprised to lose both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers, but it was a sign of where we are going. There simply aren’t enough goalies to go around, so hoarding is becoming a popular pastime. Carolina kept three for awhile, and Philadelphia is juggling them like a circus performer. When Frederik Andersen was hurting post-Christmas, the Maple Leafs paid the fifth-rounder to get Michael Hutchinson before things got, well, to where they got for the Canucks. And it is going to get even stingier now that each of the Original 30 must expose one netminder for the Seattle expansion draft.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s selection and growth has really helped matters as the Sabres were seriously lacking goaltending depth even before Cal Petersen opted for free agency. They’ll likely spend a draft pick on a goaltender and I won’t be surprised to see them wade into college free agency to bolster their depth further down the pipeline.

It’s a cheap and easy way to inject talent into the pipeline though it may not be as easy to sell a job in the Buffalo organization with Luukkonen set to take a spot in Rochester and the opportunity to tender a qualifying offer to Scott Wedgewood to remain as the veteran presence with the Amerks. Even if Wedgewood is retained as the “third” goalie in the system, with Luukkonen making headway to nab that title at some point in 2019-20, it’s still a thin pipeline. Jonas Johansson has made solid strides this season showing he’s probably capable of more time at the AHL level. But any chance he gets in the final year of his ELC will be limited by Luukkonen’s arrival. I can’t see the Sabres keeping him around much longer and next year may well be his last in the organization. If that’s the case, they’ll need to plug in another goaltender on a professional contract to not only push Luukkonen, but to hedge their bets when it comes to development at the position. Having only one true prospect under a professional contract is not a recipe for success and you can never have too many good goaltenders. I’d argue that the Sabres need to find a solid college free agent to bolster their depth.

There’s always a decent crop of goalies who blossom in the NCAA ranks and this year will be no different. Cale Morris could still return to Notre Dame for another season but would be one of the most attractive free agents if he hits the market. The Sabres also got a good look at two juniors at last summer’s development camp in Hunter Shepard and Jake Kielly. All three have tremendous collegiate numbers but I suspect Morris or Kielly would be the more attractive pro prospects to many NHL teams. They each play a more controlled game compared to as Shepard’s active, acrobatic style that looks a lot like Jonathan Quick. While the results for all three are excellent, and Shepard is a ton of fun to watch, I wonder if the way he plays would leave some scouts questioning the way his style would translate to the higher levels.

  1. Blake Wheeler is on pace for 17 goals and 97 points, which puts him close to a unique accomplishment. No player has ever totaled 100 points with fewer than 20 goals. Four were close: Wayne Gretzky (23 goals and 102 points, 1995–96), Brian Leetch (22 and 102, 1991–92), Adam Oates (23 and 102, 1989–90) and Joe Thornton (22 and 114, 2006–07). But Wheeler’s got a chance to be all alone.

I’m surprised no one has managed this feat. I thought for sure Jumbo Joe would’ve had a year that he racked up 100 points with something like 15 or 18 goals. It’s not a milestone that’s going to get etched in stone but it would still be pretty impressive to be the first player in NHL history to pull off something like this.

  1. A couple of weeks ago, we mentioned Arizona State goalie Joey Daccord, who looks like a shrewd late-round pick by Ottawa. (He can be a free agent this summer.)

The Sun Devils have built something out of nothing, currently ranked 12th in the NCAA, and teams are taking notice. Two other free agents are being watched by NHL clubs. Phoenix-born Johnny Walker — who will be 23 in August — leads the country with 22 goals. He went to Columbus’s development camp last summer. The other is team captain Brinson Pasichnuk, a 21-year-old defender from Bonnyville, Alta. He’s second in team scoring behind Walker and attended development camps with Arizona, Minnesota and Montreal.

No idea if Daccord would be on the Sabres’ radar (or they on his) but pencil him in as a potential college free agent target as well should they go that route to backfill their goaltending pipeline.

Whether or not the Sabres manage to stay alive in the playoff race, or if they are quiet at the deadline, we are quickly approaching college free agent scouting season. Friedman offers up a few names here and you can count on Jimmy Schuldt being among the most sought after as he was set to be the prize last spring until he decided to return to St. Cloud. There aren’t too many lists out there at the moment but that will change soon. Blueshirt Banter posted one in January, so use that to whet your appetite until more targets become apparent.

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