Finding a Remedy for the Sabres Goaltending Blues

The Sabres are set to enter the year with a 40-year old who nearly retired and a 32 year old who, up until the spring, hadn’t seen NHL action in four seasons. It’s an unenviable position to be in. And one that is indicative of the larger issues the Sabres are expected to face this year.

Of course, it isn’t exactly surprising either.

When the dust settled on July 29 and the Sabres we left with Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell as their prizes from the goaltending carousel, it became evident that Buffalo wouldn’t be counting on their goalies to steal them many games. That one of their two offseason acquisitions has now been moved to Rochester is even less encouraging.

Short of completely forgetting how to play the position, Anderson was always going to enter the season as Buffalo’s starter. It was the backup position that was truly up in that air. Though I think anyone inside KeyBank Center would have told you Dell and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen were the only two true competitors ahead of camp.

It’s gone a completely different direction since. Dell was downright dreadful, and reports have now surfaced that the Sabres aren’t happy with how he arrived in camp. Meanwhile, UPL simply couldn’t grab the reins. He’d put in a good period here or there but his larger body of work just wasn’t good enough. Much like his four-game audition last year, he turned in some quality play but at the end of the day, too many pucks wound up behind him.

It’s my firm belief that the Sabres, despite public statements to the contrary, wanted UPL to grab this job. Anderson said many times that he was brought in to be a mentor and that he relished that opportunity. There isn’t much to mentor with Dell and Tokarski who are both 32-years old. Partnering Anderson with UPL would have allowed the young Finn to see a healthy number of games at the NHL level and hopefully take the next step in his career.

It is an added benefit that the Rochester job was always going to be there for UPL if he didn’t have the chops to earn the backup role. It may be for the best in the end if the preseason has been any indication. Not only did UPL not look the part, the chances his team seem poised to surrender this year will hardly make for an ideal situation for a goalie’s development.

Dell and UPL’s failure to grab hold of the job has pushed the Sabres to apparently name Dustin Tokarski as the backup to Anderson for the year. While it’s a well-earned honor, it adds another layer of doubt to the Sabres outlook in goal this year.

The bottom line on Tokarski is that he is not an NHL goaltender any more. There’s a reason he went four years without a start and his larger body of work last year with the Sabres illustrated that (especially his final three games). At this stage in his career he is a high quality AHL veteran and by all accounts, that’s what they originally signed him to be. To be relying on Tokarski for upwards of 30-to-35 starts is a painful reality for the Sabres to face.

But there is time to remedy the situation. There’s no way they can truly fix things for the season (short of getting Dominik Hasek out of a time machine from 1999) but they can find an alternative to Tokarski who would strengthen their outlook at the position.

There will be a handful of goaltenders placed on waivers in the coming days who would offer an upgrade behind Craig Anderson and allow Tokarski to return to Rochester where they likely originally slated him.

It should be noted that claiming a goalie on waivers, or even via trade, does add a bit of complexity to the team’s pipeline management. Adding another body and bumping Tokarski to Rochester creates a three headed monster in their crease. With UPL slated to carry the load, the Sabres would need to find a home for one of their other goalies (likely Dell). They’ll already be sending Matt Robson and Michael Houser to Cincinnati, so a loan to another AHL team would be necessary if they didn’t want to juggle starts behind UPL for the duration of the season.

The other issue is that claiming a goalie on waivers is hardly a preferred option. However, it appears there is going to be a bit of talent hitting the waiver wire prior to the season kicking off.

Connor Ingram

Ingram is only 24 and has been lauded as one of the better goalie prospects sitting outside the NHL. He hasn’t broken through quite yet in his career and this year he is no longer waiver exempt. The one caveat here is that Nashville may name him their backup, pushing Dave Rittich out the door. Rittich would be another worthy waiver claim as he’d be a cheap and fairly reliable upgrade on Tokarski in the short term.

Ingram, should he be waived, would offer more long term benefit to the Sabres. He hasn’t gotten an extended look in the NHL yet but a Sabres claim would change that reality immediately.

Charlie Lindgren

Waived on Thursday, Lindgren will know he has a new home sooner than that. Lindgren has fallen off the status he had a few years ago as a rookie and he’s probably a borderline NHL backup at this point. But he’s a stronger option that wouldn’t hurt to explore.

Malcom Subban & Colin Delia

Chicago will likely be waiving both netminders as Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen will be manning the Chicago crease. Subban has the slightly stronger NHL resume but isn’t as impressive to me as a longer term option. Delia hasn’t gotten enough time to establish himself but he certainly has the chops. Neither of these guys are especially exciting, but they’d still be definitive upgrades

MIkko Koskinen (trade)

Lastly is a guy who the Sabres could target in an effort to weaponize their cap space. It’s understood that the Oilers have some desire to move on from Koskinen and the opportunity to rid themselves of the contract is notable.

Koskinen also helps the Sabres with cap compliance in the eventual situation where Jack Eichel is gone. Buffalo wouldn’t just get an NHL average goalie as a stopgap but they could open the door to obtaining more assets.

None of the other goalies who are likely to be waived provide the Sabres any serious improvement. But this group does have the ability to make the Sabres more competitive in net and overall. While the Sabres aren’t exactly trying to win the President’s Trophy, a more stable situation in net would help keep the season from being an absolute mental beat down for Buffalo’s important young prospects.

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