Under normal circumstances the Sabres goaltending depth chart would have been difficult to navigate this year. Prior to the confirmation that teams would be operating with a taxi squad it was looking like it could be a problem.
While Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are effectively locked in as the top two goalies, finding appropriate playing time for Jonas Johansson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski was going to require creativity. In a typical regular season the Sabres would have the ability to split their minor league goaltenders between Rochester and Cincinnati, easing the burden on the Amerks’ coaching staff to get the right players enough playing time. With Cincinnati not participating this season, the potential for a three-headed monster in the Rochester crease could have been cause for concern.
Aside from finding the right tandem in Buffalo to give the Sabres the best opportunity to end their playoff drought, the most important task with Buffalo’s goaltenders is the development of Luukkonen. It seems unlikely that he would have been destined for Cincinnati given the strides he took last year, though the Cyclones would have been a vital relief valve for the organization to utilize to prevent any one goalie from sitting too long.
Luukkonen may not be a guarantee for the Amerks crease, as the AHL still has hurdles to clear before kicking off their season. The additional delay between the start of Sabres camp (December 31) and the projected February start for the AHL isn’t insignificant. The Sabres could just as easily opt to leave him with TPS for the time being. But the door is open for Luukkonen to earn the lion’s share of time with the Amerks. Whether playing in tandem with Tokarski or Johnasson is somewhat irrelevant as getting Luukkonen prime minutes in Rochester is what’s most important.
The taxi squad’s creation really serves a key role in that respect, as the requirement for all 31 teams to carry a third goalie eliminates the possibility that Luukkonen would have to share the Rochester crease with two other veterans. Yes, Michael Houser is still under an AHL contract but finding him a loan to another AHL club or an ECHL team will be easy enough. Juggling a trio of goalies on NHL deals would have been an entirely different monster.
Now, the taxi squad grants either Tokarski or Johansson a ticket to Buffalo for practice time with the NHL club and the potential to slide in or out of the lineup depending on the health or play of Buffalo’s top two netminders. I have some suspicions that Kevyn Adams knew that the taxi squad would be created for the year since the Tokarski signing didn’t make a ton of sense at the time. Yes, he guaranteed them a goalie to expose in expansion, but otherwise it just crowded the crease outside of Buffalo. If he did indeed know about the taxi squad ahead of time, signing Tokarski would have been purely insurance for expansion and to firm up the number three position in the organization.
Short of the acquisition of a goaltender to replace Carter Hutton (and subsequently unloading him), this is about the best possible scenario for the Sabres and their goalies this season. Their blue chip prospect is poised to play big minutes in the next phase of his development while the organization’s one, two and three goalies are secure.
We’ll see whether this group is up to snuff this season, but from a development and playing time scenario, the Sabres are well positioned for the 20-21 season.