Change, without question, is in store for the Buffalo Sabres this offseason. It was probably the most repeated word during locker room cleanouts and post-season press conferences – parroted by both players and management.
The goaltender position will not only be not immune from change, but likely the one most susceptible to it. This is the case for a couple of reasons.
One is the fact that the Sabres only have a couple of players on the team that they could trade and warrant a decent return. Not only that, the players with the most value are some of your core players. Parting ways with guys like Ryan O’Reilly or Rasmus Ristiolainen would be both difficult and risky.
A fresh face, or two, in the crease, will allow Buffalo to shake up their roster without ditching one of the few top players they have.
A second reason why the goalie position will get an overhaul is frankly because both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson are no longer good fits in Buffalo. A 31st-place finish is all the evidence you need for such a sentiment.
And it wouldn’t be change for the sake of change with these two players.
Buffalo should walk away from Lehner and Johnson in order to improve the position.
Lehner was supposed to be the goalie that led the Sabres from the depths of rebuild, to the promised land of a playoff birth – at least in the eyes of former general manager Tim Murray. He firmly believed this, so much so that he gave up a questionable first-round draft pick in order to acquire him from the Ottawa Senators.
Many disliked the cost paid for an unproven starting goaltender. It could be argued, though, that Murray was aggressive in netting a goalie he was extremely familiar with, who possessed a high upside. Even if that potential still lingers with Lehner, the Sabres must move on.
Robin’s numbers weren’t horrendous, but nor were they stellar. If any bad omen could have predicted how his time in Buffalo would go, it would have to be his first start in a Sabres sweater. He suffered a high-ankle sprain injury only minutes into the game, against his former team mind you.
He posted solid numbers his second season, winning 23 games – a career-high. In his last ‘show me’ contract year, though, he posted a dismal record of 12-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA and a .908 Sv%. Simply not good enough.
One thing Sabres fans liked about him was his tenacity and level of compete. He is one of the few goalies willing to drop the gloves and certainly got involved in a few skirmishes. Most fans remember a game against Columbus a few seasons ago.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 20, 2016
Despite some likable qualities, Lehner never stood a chance of being truly accepted by the fan base the way other franchise goalies had.
Johnson’s fate is probably similar to Robin’s, but his story is much different. The 2015-16 Sabres owe a huge amount of their success to Johnson, who posted a record of 22-16-4 with a 2.36 GAA and a .920 Sv%.
Johnson also owes a lot to Buffalo as well, since those were career-high numbers. Those stats allowed him to sign with Calgary, his hometown, the next season.
When Johnson re-signed in Buffalo for the 2017-18 season, he told reporters that “he had some unfinished business.” That welcomed remark was soon forgotten about, though, as the Sabres stumbled out of the gate and never regained their footing.
The Sabres’ first win of the 2017-18 season came courtesy of a Johnson performance in Anaheim, but he wouldn’t win another game until January 22. He played solid stretches of hockey in the latter portions of the season, but he and his numbers never quite recovered. His 3.55 GAA and .891 save percentage are certainly eyesores on the stat sheet.
In reference to his bloated numbers, Johnson said
“You just have to hope that games were watched, not looked at the statistics side of. You hope people come to the games and they watch video and they see sort of what happened and why it happened. Obviously, I didn’t step up when I needed to and make more saves, and that’s on me. I just wasn’t able to do that.”
If the Sabres want Johnson to return, he said he’ll need to see change, whether with players or a contract.
It should be noted that Lehner and Johnson had some of the worst defense corps in front of them the past few seasons, with sparse run support to boot. They will find playing time on other teams, just not in Buffalo.
This allows for Linus Ullmark to subsume a role for the Sabres. Whether Ullmark claims the starting role or shares it, is a question that will be answered this summer or in training camp.
One thing is for certain: that change is coming to Buffalo. There will be no exception between the pipes.