Sabres Facing a Need for an Upgrade in Goal

The Sabres have a goaltending problem. To be clear, they’ve had a goaltending problem.

Going back to the 2020 offseason, the Sabres have been dealing with suspect goaltending talent. In an offseason that saw them attempt to upgrade at center (Eric Staal) and land one of the top UFAs (Taylor Hall) in what was ostensibly one last push to break their playoff drought with the existing core. Despite the big ticket acquisitions that summer, Kevyn Adams didn’t address the talent he had in net. Opting to run Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark back after the former posted an .898 save percentage the prior year.

It’s been a similar story this year. Granted, it was going to be difficult to find any notable free agent talent, let alone a goaltender, on the heels of a last place finish. But despite Craig Anderson’s hot start, his injury has left the Sabres exposed once again.

Adams deserves some leeway for the situation he inherited and is currently managing through, as the ability to lure a premier free agent for this season was always going to be a long shot. Opting not to exploit the trade market is a questionable decision, however, and it’s proving to be disastrous as Dustin Tokarski has regressed and Aaron Dell simply hasn’t been good enough. Meanwhile, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has been off to an ugly start for the Amerks, effectively leaving the Sabres with no options in net until Anderson is healthy again.

Adams is left with two choices in the interim. They either weather the storm and hope Anderson picks up where he left off once he’s back from injury. Or, he works the trade market to find a replacement for Aaron Dell and potentially Tokarski once Anderson returns.

There is a third option, which would be to recall Luukkonen despite his struggles in an effort to see if he can offer any sort of improvement over what Dell has brought so far as the organizational number three. Either way, what the Sabres have no isn’t working. Tokarski isn’t reliable enough and Dell doesn’t have the chops. Continuing on this path is simply untenable.

Assuming the Sabres are hesitant to recall Luukkonen, given his difficult start to the season, the trade market seems to be the only way to send a message to the locker room that management isn’t willing to let the season slip away. Yes, this year is ultimately more about draft position than climbing the standings, but letting the season rot on the vine because of sub-par goaltending isn’t the message I think Adams wants to send

So, who can the Sabres chase? They could conceivably chase someone who is ready to graduate from prospect status who has potential to be a starter in the future. But that would require a hefty trade package, something I doubt the Sabres are unlikely to pay at this juncture. Or they could seek out another goaltender in the profile of an organizational number three, who would require a minimal buy-in from the Sabres and provide a short-term boost in net and even provide an upgrade for the remainder of the season as Anderson’s partner.

Pickings are admittedly slim on the goalie market. Even looking ahead to the offseason, there are few targets the Sabres could focus on in order to find a bridge starter for the club.

Connor Ingram has been flirting with an NHL job for a few seasons and remains a well respected prospect. He’s currently stuck as Nashville’s third goalie behind Juuse Saros and David Rittich. Ingram still carries a fair bit of value (probably more than the Sabres are willing to spend at the moment) and is likely seen as a long term asset for the Preds as Rittich is only signed for this season. While not a realistic target for the Sabres at the moment, Ingram represents they type of young, up-and-coming keeper who could provide value beyond this year as they wait for the likes of Devon Levi and Erik Portillo to develop.

Ingram is hardly the only young-ish prospect worth keeping an eye of for a summer acquisition. But in terms of where the Sabres are this season, and the understanding that this was never expected to be a Cup contender, finding a band aid seems like the best course of action. You can throw a net over pretty much any third goalie in the league and feel okay about what they’d provide for the rest of the season, but there are a few names that stand out above the rest.

Charlie Lindgren – St. Louis

Lindgren never really caught on for Montreal and his limited NHL career (24 games) isn’t going to turn many heads. He hasn’t seen NHL action in three years and consisted of six games and a forgettable stat line (3.33, .888). But he’s posted a .924 save percentage for AHL Springfield this year and at a discount rate at least offers some potential of a steadier hand than Aaron Dell has offered thus far. The Blues still have Joel Hofer as a third goalie behind Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington, meaning they should be at least somewhat amenable to working with the Sabres on a deal involving Lindgren.

Calvin Pickard – Detroit

A personal favorite of mine from a few years back. He’s never could keep a hold on a steady NHL job and he’s had some tough games since leaving the Avalanche organization way back in 2017. He’s similar to Lindgren in that respect as his most recent NHL action doesn’t inspire much confidence. But he’s been excellent at the AHL level this year, posting a 2.24 GAA and .931 SV% in 11 games this year. Where he and Lindgren compare to Dell is hard to say, but the current results point to finding an alternative.  

Logan Thompson – Vegas

Thompson is a tough sell. Vegas is still building out their pipeline and while Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit are well entrenched at the NHL level, I can’t imagine the Golden Knights are over the moon with the idea of shipping out a 24 year old goalie. He’s had two very good AHL seasons this year and last and probably represents a longer-term investment for the Sabres than some of the others on this list. Price would be a factor here but there’s probably a bit more promise in Thompson’s skillset than with the two above him on this list.

Zach Fucale – Washington

Fucale finally made his NHL debut, eight years after being drafted and stops in nine different minor league cities. His NHL resume is lacking to the point where it’s hard to level with what he could offer the Sabres, even in the short term. Save for 11 games in Hershey last year, his AHL numbers aren’t even that impressive, let alone any sort of resume at a higher level. He’s hardly made an impact in the AHL save for those 11 games, leaving a big question mark as to what sort of return you’d get over the course of the coming weeks or months. I think it’s a safe bet to assume the asking price on Fucale would be quite low, even though he is pretty well entrenched as Washington’s number three. Does the low asking price outweigh the lacking resume? Tough call to make given what’s already a limited market.

Colin Delia/Malcom Subban – Chicago

Two tough starts for Chicago’s pair of AHL netminders. Kevin Lankinen’s emergence and Marc-Andre Fleury’s acquisition pushed the pair down the depth chart and with the offseason signing of Arivd Soderblom, there’s room to ship out a body in the Blackhawks pipeline. Neither Subban nor Delia have distinguished themselves this year but Subban has NHL experience you’d be looking for. Of anyone on this list, Subban probably offers the highest floor, which might just be what the doctor ordered for the Sabres.

Veteran Options

Trade rumors have swirled around Mikko Koskinen and Dallas’ crease as a whole since the offseason. Anton Khudobin would probably be the most likely to move on from the Stars. Potentially to the Oilers if summer rumors are to be believed. Koskinen is a curious target for the Sabres as Buffalo has the ability to provide the Oilers with some valuable cap relief over the remainder of the year. Koskinen would be an admirable addition to Buffalo’s crease, making a shaky situation fairly stable, and the ability to weaponize their cap space could net the Sabres an asset, as opposed to sending one out for short-term assistance.

Other various organizational number three goalies can be inserted into this conversation quite easily. The conclusions are also similar whether you swap Louis Domingue for Cal Pickard or Keith Kinkaid for Charlie Lindgren. There are options available for the Sabres to explore and at minimum they offer an upgrade over Aaron Dell.

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