Sabres Faced with a Challenge in Net

Kevyn Adams took a calculated risk when he opted not to move Linus Ullmark ahead of the trade deadline this past season.

Ullmark, a pending unrestricted free agent, was one of the few bright spots for the Sabres this past year and has developed into a reliable NHL goaltender. Despite the lack of a contract extension, Adams seems to have felt it was more beneficial to keep Ullmark in the fold for future extension talks as opposed to collecting an asset for him.

Free agency is now approaching and it seems likely that Ullmark will hit the open market and likely sign with a team closer to competing. The Sabres are already short on goaltending depth, with Dustin Tokarski and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as the only goaltenders under contract for next year. Adams was going to have to bring on at least one goalie this offseason and now it’s looking like he may need a pair.

Luukkonen’s short cameo in the spring featured a few highlights but he still looked like a prospect who needed a touch more seasoning. Tokarski also performed admirably but his rightful place is on the Rochester roster.

That means at least two goalies are needed with an organizational third not being out of the realm of possibility. The Sabres won’t be alone in the goalie market as I count at least eight teams who could (or should) be in the goalie market this summer.

Boston – Tuukka Rask needs surgery and is expected to be out long term and he’s unrestricted. Jaro Halak is also scheduled for unrestricted free agency. While Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar are waiting in the wings, the Bruins will be very young in goal unless something changes.

Chicago – The Blackhawks goaltending feels very unfinished to me. At the very least, they’ll likely be looking for a slightly more established talent to share time with Kevin Lankinen.

Colorado – Philipp Grubauer is a UFA and while it’s easier for the Avs to re-sign him and run it back with their group again, his price tag may create difficulties for the Avs and they, in turn, may poke around for a potential upgrade.

Carolina – Petr Mrazek is unrestricted, same with James Reimer. Alex Nedeljkovic is restricted and a recent report indicated the Canes may not want to play ball on his arbitration number.

Edmonton – It sounds like they’re working hard to bring Mike Smith back for another year but I can’t help but think they’d love to find an upgrade.

Nashville – Pekka Rinne’s retirement shifts their needs in net a bit. Juuse Saros is the starter for the Preds and that’s not about to change. There were some questions about Nashville potentially rebuilding which could change their targets in net, but right now it looks like they’ll be searching for someone to slot in behind Saros. Connor Ingram is an internal option, but they may prefer a veteran option for Saros’ partner.

Philadelphia – Death, taxes, Philly needing a goalie. This all hinges on how they feel about Carter Hart’s ability to rebound, but it sure seems to me like they’ll be sniffing around the market.

Pittsburgh – Another team without a pressing need, but a need nonetheless. Tristan Jarry had caught his fair share of heat for their playoff losses and a stronger number one may be needed.

San Jose – Martin Jones in under contract for three more years at a hefty $5.75 cap hit. That’s a difficult contract to move, which makes bringing in help a bit more challenging. Bottom line is that goaltending has cost the Sharks recently and an upgrade could bring them back to competency.

What this means for the Sabres is that they won’t be alone in trying to fill their crease.

The likelihood of a rebuild sans the likes of Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen could also affect their sales pitch to free agent targets. The Sabres aren’t going to be high on many lists to begin with and if they proceed with a rebuild, they’ll fall off even more lists than they’re on today. Assuming a rebuild in on the horizon, it’s fair to assume that the Sabres won’t be knocking down the door for a gamebreaker in net, but rather someone who can serve as a bridge between 2021-22 and the day when UPL is ready for a full NHL workload.

The list below highlights some of the more popular goaltending targets on the market this summer, a few who I feel could fit the Sabres current needs and a couple who aren’t rebuild targets but would be targets if the Sabres thought they could take on last ditch run at competiting.

Chris Driedger – The odd man out in Florida right now thanks to Sergei Bobrovsky’s monster contract and the rapid emergence of Spencer Knight. Driedger’s stock drastically improved over the last two seasons as his play took off with the Panthers and he’s bound to get a lot of attention this summer as a UFA. He’s one of my least favorite targets, however, as I can’t help but think back to Carter Hutton’s free agency coming after a short run of excellent hockey. Driedger’s two big seasons for the Panthers still only amount to 35 games total while his previous six seasons saw him put up pedestrian numbers in the AHL and ECHL. He’s not the kind of guy I’d want the Sabres to invest in, though I don’t suspect they’ll get the chance as he’ll be hearing from far more attractive destinations than Buffalo.

Philipp Grubauer – Grubauer and Driedger will be among the most sought after free agent goalies should they hit the open market. I’m not sure if Colorado will want to move on, but they may find themselves forced to consider other options if the Vezina candidate’s salary demands are too high. It’s doubtful he’s on Buffalo’s radar, nor Buffalo his.

Darcy Kuemper (trade) – Another unlikely target for the Sabres. It’s hard to say whether or not the Coyotes will move Kuemper, though if they get their rumored asking price (first round pick) I could see them taking the bait. Arizona is in desperate need of assets and they’re not likely to be competing any time soon, making Keumper a valuable and expendable asset.

Petr Mrazek – I have to assume Mrazek’s preference (like every player in the league) will be to land with a competitor. His numbers in Carolina won’t blow you away but he certainly rejuvenated his career with the Hurricanes after a dismal stretch at the end of his time in Detroit and with the Flyers. His counting stats were especially strong this season (2.06, .923) though he only got into 12 games. He’s been at or above .500 in quality starts the last three years, with a positive GSAA in two of them. He’d offer the Sabres competent goaltending and would likely land on a shorter deal, which would check almost every box Buffalo would have.

How different is 20-21 for the Sabres if they claim Nedeljkovic on waivers?

Alex Nedeljkovic (trade) – I find it very hard to believe that the Canes would let his arbitration number scare them off, but if there’s trouble there, Nedeljkovic is someone to pounce on. He starred for the Canes after finally getting the opportunity to play meaningful minutes. It’s worth noting that the Sabres could have had Nedljkovic for free in January when the Canes placed him on waivers. He followed that by finishing as a Calder finalist and making two veterans expendable for the Canes. If he was somehow available, he’d be a piece for the rebuild, not one to bridge it. The only potential concern would be determining if you can get him locked up beyond his first UFA eligibility or not. If he’s not going to sign long-term it’s probably not an avenue worth pursuing.

Antti Raanta – A personal favorite of mine for a few years now, Raanta’s injury history has kept him off the ice more than on it the last two seasons. He’s a talented netminder who you’d need another goalie to tandem with due to his recent inability to stay on the ice. Raanta is 32 and has played over 30 games just once In the last three years. His counting stats took a hit behind a bad Coyotes team last year but his quality starts (.545) and GSAA -1.1 were respectable despite being banged up and behind a bad team. So long as the Sabres find another goalie who they can plug in if Raanta gets dinged again, he’d be a quality signing in the short term.

Mikko Koskinen (trade) – This is an idea that Chad from Expected Buffalo has floated out there a frankly, one that I think makes a whole lot of sense. Koskinen is signed for one more season at $4.5M. The Oilers are reportedly working to re-sign Mike Smith and with their acquisition of Duncan Keith, an extra $4.5M of space would do them a world of good. Offering the Oilers a low pick to take on Koskinen’s salary gives the Sabres the short term goalie they’re seeking and the ability to acquire an extra pick (likely a mid-round selection) as a toll for taking on the salary. Koskinen, for those thinking of Shane Wright and the summer of June 2022, is good enough to keep the Sabres from losing 6-0 each night but isn’t going to steal so many games that they won’t land outside the lottery.  

Elvis Merzlikins (trade) – This ship has likely sailed for the Sabres given the looming rebuild, but in a world where they wanted one more kick at the can, Merzlikins would offer them good value and acquisition cost. I also think he’d be a curious addition to pair with Linus Ullmark, assuming he would be retained. The issue with bringing him in is that they’d effectively be in the same spot they were with Ullmark last year. Merzlikins is one year from UFA and burning a second round pick or a value prospect for a rental goalie isn’t the best business for a team in Buffalo’s shoes. But in a vacuum where Ullmark is retained, a tandem of Ullmark and Merzlikins would give the Sabres a quality pairing in net.

Frederik Andersen – Andersen’s numbers have depressed over the last couple of seasons and Toronto’s struggles in the playoffs haven’t helped his value either. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in Toronto for 21-22 but if the Sabres do lose Linus Ullmark and still felt like they had an outside shot at being a competitive team, Andersen might be a fit for them. He’s a personal favorite of mine and I think in the right situation he could rebound a bit on the last two years. There’s also a scenario where the music stops and he’s left without a job in the early days of free agency and suddenly starters minutes on a rebuilding Sabres team become more attractive. I’m not overly confident that the fit fully aligns but I wouldn’t completely rule it out.

Injuries are a concern, but Antti Raanta could provide stable goaltending on a short deal for the Sabres.

James Reimer & Brian Elliott – Both of these guys fit an interesting segment of the goaltending market. They’re aging veterans who, in a perfect world, would probably like to land with a contender for one last shot at a title in a backup type role. But they also may get squeezed depending on how some of the goalie needy teams shape their strategy in net. I can’t imagine either have much appetite for taking a contract in Buffalo when it could very well be their last in the league, but in terms of fitting Buffalo’s plans, they’re both decent candidates. Reimer has been fairly solid the last few years for the Hurricanes and will get some offers from better situaitons, but I wonder if a chance to start would be enticing for Elliott. He’d give them a year or two buffer on UPL or another young acquisition and he’s a battler who has plenty of playoff experience he could impart on a young locker room.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what tack the Sabres should take with their goaltenders at the moment. Even though all signs are pointing to divorce, it’s still possible that they would enter the season with Jack Eichel on the roster. In that event, they may even have hope that other acquisitions might put them in the conversation for a playoff spot. The reality of the situation is bleaker. They’re on the precipice of a rebuild and finding goalies who can steal you games won’t be nearly as important. With that in mind, building a tandem from Miiko Koskinen, Antti Raanta or Brian Elliott seems like the direction they’d go in.

Say it winds up as Elliott and Raanta. That pair isn’t going to curry much favor with the fanbase but they’d be a capable duo who would help weather the next season or two as the Sabres build out their pipeline and prepare UPL for an NHL gig.

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