Sabres Goaltending Pipeline Needs a Boost

It may seem odd that a team so badly in need of help in goal would opt to trade away one of the few goaltenders they had left. But that’s exactly what the Sabres did in dealing Jonas Johansson to Colorado last week.

Things got dicey for the Sabres in the wake of that decision as Carter Hutton went down with a friendly fire injury just two days later. Of course, that’s the sort of season the Sabres are having. Fairly innocuous decisions turn into catastrophes in the blink of an eye.

In the big picture, of course, not having Johansson to rotate in with Hutton, even in the wake of his injury is practically irrelevant. Johansson recorded a singular win for the Sabres over the course of 13 appearances and both this year and last, sported a save percentage under .900. The difference between what he and Dustin Tokarski are capable of providing is minimal.  

The stark reality for the Sabres is that without Linus Ullmark in net, their chances at victory are slim. Carter Hutton has failed to regain the form that earned him his contract, Johansson didn’t display enough pro traits and Tokarski has looked very much like a goalie who hasn’t seen an NHL game in four years. If it isn’t Ullmark between the pipes, it really makes no difference who is playing in his place these days.

Trading Johansson was a smart decision. Even for the long shot that is a sixth-round pick, leveraging another asset from a player six years removed from his draft is good business. It’s unlikely that Johansson turns into a legitimate NHL netminder, parting ways with him and looking forward to future options is key for the Sabres.

Everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (I would’ve given him at least one game prior to Ullmark’s return) but he is still a ways off from really being NHL ready. Erik Portillo is the only other goaltender of significance in the pipeline and come July, he Luukonen and Tokarski will be the only goaltenders whose rights the Sabres still hold.

It seems likely that Ullmark will be retained, but add him to that list and the Sabres are still woefully thin in goal.

One of Buffalo’s draft picks will almost certainly be used on a goalie and a new partner for Ullmark will be acquired via free agency or trade. That still only leaves the club with a minimal pipeline of goaltenders to pull from, with little in the way of long-term promise.

What’s fascinating is that the Sabres also face a very immediate need for help in goal just to get through this season in one piece. Ullmark is due to return as soon as this afternoon and Tokarski can maintain as the backup and Luukkonen will get the lion’s share of minutes in Rochester as we limp towards May. Perhaps Luukkonen will get an odd game or two before the season is out, but as it stands, the Sabres are still an injury away from a similar headache they’re currently dealing with. Specifically, having their only three contract goaltenders in Buffalo, spread between the active roster and taxi squad.

Adding a body to this group is almost mandatory just to offer the necessary security to close out the year. That probably rules out European options, specifically Skelleftea goaltender Arvid Soderblom who has put up excellent numbers as a 21-year old in the SHL. However, if the Sabres opt to delay any decision on a college or European free agent, Soderblom will be a name worth tracking as the organization works to bolster their pipeline.

If getting someone added to reinforce the pipeline for the remainder of this year and going forward, there are a couple of NCAA free agents worth considering. Strauss Mann just had his season abruptly ended as Michigan was forced to withdraw from the NCAA tournament due to a positive COVID test. Mann has posted strong counting stats the last couple of seasons (1.89 GAA, .930 SV% this year and 1.85 GAA, .939 SV% last year) and has earned himself a fair bit of praise as a free agent target. You’ll find him at the top of most lists when it comes to free agent goaltending options at the collegiate level.

The goalie I want to see more from is Dryden McKay. He’s a Mike Richter Award finalist and has been nothing short of astonishing for Minnesota State. He’s played the vast majority of games for the Mavericks over the last three seasons, posting consecutive years with a sub-2.00 GAA and over .925 SV%. That’s hard to beat as far as counting stats go.

His pro traits aren’t as highly lauded as goalies like Mann or even Adam Scheel, but aside from lacking the 6’4” frame of most contemporary pro prospects, his dominance at the NCAA level is worth further investigation. And in a season where there’s next to no positives left to be drawn, evaluating players who could impact the organization in the future is almost all that’s left.

Adding a free agent like McKay would give the Sabres the ability to return either Tokarski or Michael Houser to Rochester and ease their new acquisition into practice and even games as the season drags to a close. The added insurance and the opportunity to evaluate a new option for the future should be reason enough for the Sabres to be in these sweepstakes. I should note that the Sabres could certainly shift Luukkonen to Buffalo for an odd game or two before the end of the season as well. But for the time being, let’s assume their plan to slow cook him remains at the forefront.

They’ll hardly be alone in competition for these goaltenders, but on the heels of what really was a wise trade of Johansson, getting a new face in the pipeline should be high on their to-do list.

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