Help is on the way to the Sabres goal crease. The Sabres acquired Malcolm Subban from the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, addressing a glaring weak spot in the wake of Craig Anderson’s absence.
Even without the vagueness surrounding Anderson’s recovery, it was becoming apparent that the Sabres needed reinforcement in net. Dustin Tokarski has started to battle some inconsistency as the bell cow and Aaron Dell simply hasn’t played anywhere near an NHL level since being recalled.
It’s been Dell’s play in particular which has highlighted the need for some sort of upgrade in net. He’s made five total appearances and has posted a ghastly 4.56 GAA and .862 SV%. Those numbers are actually being boosted by the two relief appearances he’s made, where he turned aside 24 of 25 shots across roughly 60 total minutes of action. In games Dell has started, he’s posted an 0-3-0 record with an .833 SV% and a 6.06 GAA. He’s been sloppy, struggled with angles and has been generally unreliable since the Sabres called him up to replace Anderson.
Subban arrives with the opportunity to re-establish himself as an NHL goaltender after two tough seasons split between Vegas and Chicago. He’s a former first round pick who at least had the look of a quality backup after earning an NHL job with Vegas in 2017. But his numbers dipped in 2019 and he was moved to Chicago as part of the Robin Lehner trade in February of 2020.
He only saw one game with the Blackhawks before the COVID shutdown, but he didn’t enjoy much of a rebound last season, enjoying a moderate improvement in his save percentage, but not much else as he was passed on Chicago’s depth chart by Kevin Lankinen.
As discussed in this blog post, Subban probably has the most NHL experience of anyone who would have been easily acquired in what is a very thin goaltending market. Chicago is one of the few clubs that could absorb trading a goaltender with little, to no impact on their overall depth at the position. The three-man carousel Chicago was managing in Rockford saw Subban sharing the crease with Collin Delia and European free agent Arvid Soderblom. I would suspect the Blackhawks effectively gave the Sabres their choice of Delia or Subban as Soderblom was a well-respected European free agent and Lankinen has shown to be a capable NHL goaltender.
That the Sabres managed to address a fairly pressing need, with little to no leverage, without giving up anything from their draft stock is notable. The price likely reflects the Blackhawks’ eagerness to balance their crease in Rockford and ensure Soderblom (and Delia to a lesser extent) gets a larger share of the available games.
It’s hard to say what sort of impact Subban will have on the Sabres. His 2021-22 numbers at the AHL level aren’t impressive. In fact, Dell’s AHL numbers are a touch better, though he’s only played three AHL games to Subban’s five. So, both have a limited sample at that level in 21-22. I’m curious to know what impact Rockford’s overall quality had on Subban’s numbers as well. Not only are they juggling three goaltenders, but Delia, Soderblom and Subban all have average-to-below average AHL numbers this year. Is a mediocre roster impacting the performance of the Ice Hogs goaltenders? If so, it’s reasonable to suggest that a more consistent workload and more structured play could help Subban round into form. On the other hand, he’s not coming back to the 17-18 Golden Knights either.
Subban is a fluid goaltender who moves well in the crease. He has great agility which has served him well in the shootout thus far in his career. While his skating and movement are strengths, his technical skills can let him down from time to time and that has kept him from taking the next step in his career. What’s apparent to me is his need to play on a consistent basis in order to get into a groove mentally and physically. Dustin Tokarski needs to be spelled more often and given the limitations both he and Subban possess, the Sabres may be best served using the pair as a pure tandem.
I’m curious to see if Subban can carve out a large enough role to justify staying in Buffalo once Anderson is back. It’s certainly Tokarski’s job to lose and the uncertain timeline on Anderson means he could be back well before Subban has a chance to establish himself here. But considering Tokarski’s rocky play of late, I think there’s a larger opportunity for Subban. If he’s able to see enough ice, he could potentially be more than just a band aid for Buffalo’s ailing goal crease.