Three years removed from trading a first round pick for a player they hoped would cement their future at the position, the Buffalo Sabres goal crease remains in flux.
Linus Ullmark is poised to step into a full-time NHL role for the first time but who will partner with him for at least the 2018-19 season is still a question. Despite holding control over his RFA rights, it seems increasingly doubtful that Robin Lehner will be back in Buffalo for another season.
Ullmark’s progression has been steady to this point in his career and there’s no doubt he’s ready for this promotion. However, he’s never handled starter’s minutes at the NHL level. So it stands to reason that Jason Botterill will want to ease Ullmark into a starters role, though his 20 game foray in 2015-16 should provide some baseline for the workload he can handle.
There is something working in Ullmark’s favor here and that is he is no stranger to heavy workloads. He saw the majority of minutes with Modo in the SHL and has been a horse for the Amerks for the past two seasons. He’s played 55 and 44 games over the last two years and he led the AHL in minutes (3201:55), shots faced (1678) and saves (1525) in 2016-17.
What’s unknown is the number of games the Sabres hope to give Ullmark this season. Do they hope to get him in upwards of 50 games? Or is a 50/50 split a more manageable workload for a rookie goaltender playing behind a roster which is expected to see quite a bit of upheaval?
The only scenario I think we can fully rule out is Ullmark playing as a true backup. Even if Lehner is brought back, I doubt Ullmark gets into fewer than 35 games with his partner getting the lion’s share. The Sabres want to see if Ullmark is indeed their goaltender of the future and they won’t be able to accurately evaluate that if he gets a backup’s share of the games.
I’m hoping to see the Sabres pick up another younger netminder who can play in tandem with Ullmark. A peer who can push him for time while also opening another avenue to find a number one goaltender. Signing a veteran that they can string along on a one or two-year deal would be an acceptable option, but I think the younger route offers the Sabres a better long-term outlook, especially with a goaltender market as thin as this year’s. Continue reading