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.
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.
Under normal circumstances the Sabres goaltending depth chart would have been difficult to navigate this year. Prior to the confirmation that teams would be operating with a taxi squad it was looking like it could be a problem.
While Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are effectively locked in as the top two goalies, finding appropriate playing time for Jonas Johansson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski was going to require creativity. In a typical regular season the Sabres would have the ability to split their minor league goaltenders between Rochester and Cincinnati, easing the burden on the Amerks’ coaching staff to get the right players enough playing time. With Cincinnati not participating this season, the potential for a three-headed monster in the Rochester crease could have been cause for concern.
Aside from finding the right tandem in Buffalo to give the Sabres the best opportunity to end their playoff drought, the most important task with Buffalo’s goaltenders is the development of Luukkonen. It seems unlikely that he would have been destined for Cincinnati given the strides he took last year, though the Cyclones would have been a vital relief valve for the organization to utilize to prevent any one goalie from sitting too long. Continue reading