When the dust settled on the evening of February 28th, 2014, a bright spot was put out for the Buffalo Sabres. Ryan Miller, a main stay in the crease for 540 games over parts of 11 seasons, was traded to the St. Louis Blues.
The Sabres have long been spoiled with security in net. Since Dominik Hasek’s debut for the Sabres in 1991-92, it is arguable that the Sabres have only had three clear cut No. 1 goaltenders – Dominik Hasek, Marty Biron and Ryan Miller.
Looking to the future, there are many options in the system in regards to goaltending. From the NHL level to major junior, the Sabres are stocked with prospects at this position. Can any one of them become the next franchise goaltender in Buffalo?
There is 19-year-old Cal Petersen, who was drafted last summer in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Average in size, Petersen was drafted in the later rounds, is currently playing in the Juniors for the Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL).
Petersen is having a great final campaign at this level, carrying a 25-5-1-2 record, with 2.49 GAA and .916 save pct. He is quick with his lower body, feet and pad areas, and is good controlling rebounds.
Petersen catches with his right hand, which is rare among NHL goalies. The Sabres have had a couple popular right hand catching goalies in the past, with the likes of Darren Puppa and Grant Fuhr.
However, as of right now, Petersen has committed to the University of Notre Dame to play hockey, starting in the 2015 school year.
The next prospect is 23-year-old Connor Knapp, drafted in 2009. Some outlets have Knapp listed as tall as 6’6, which is a very entertaining statistic when talking about goaltenders in today’s NHL. Knapp was also drafted in the later rounds, and has done nothing to this point that separates himself from the crowd of prospects in the organization.
With size second to none in the organization, Knapp does lack quickness and good read ability. Knapp is not with the Rochester Americans anymore, and has spent the season in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades and Georgia Road Warriors. His numbers are less than impressive, sporting a 9-12-3-2 record, with 2.61 GAA and .918 save pct. At this point, Knapp’s contract is expiring at the end of the 2013-14 season. With the plethora of young goaltending in the system, Knapp may be a casualty of the numbers.
Next on the list is Linus Ullmark. He is 21-year-old, who was drafted in 2012. Ullmark immediately made it known he was going to remain in Europe and play hockey in his native country of Sweden. Ullmark carries a record of 17-12-2-1, with a very impressive 1.99 GAA and .934 save pct.
Over a 34 game stretch, these are great numbers for a young goalie. With the young goalies Buffalo has in North America right now, there is no need to rush Ullmark to the NHL. Even with these stats, he is seen as still being very raw in talent, and needing much more development to hone his skill set. In the next couple of years, Ullmark could end up with the Rochester Americans.
The next goaltender to speak of did not come to Buffalo through the draft. Andrey Makarov was signed as a free agent in 2012. The 21-year-old is a quick, athletic goaltender and has made his mark in the gold medal game in 2012, stopping 57 of 58 shots against team Canada in a 1-0 loss.
Makarov is currently playing in the ECHL and has a 14-10-2-2 record, with a 2.77 GAA and .907 save pct. Makarov is widely seen as one of the best young goalies of Russian descent, and is quickly climbing the ranks in North America. Some had seen him getting a position in the AHL this season, however the acquisition of Matt Hackett at last season’s trade deadline and the emergence of another young goalie, Makarov has stuck in the ranks of the ECHL.
At 23 years of age, Nathan Lieuwen is further along in age than some of the prospects in the pipe, and his pro career did not get off to a glowing start last season. He only appeared in four games with the Rochester Americans in the AHL, posting a 1-2-0 record with a 2.65 GAA and .919 save pct.
With the acquisition of Matt Hackett, Lieuwen was sent to the ECHL for developmental purposes. Lieuwen has slowly taken away starts from the incumbent Matt Hackett in Rochester, and is making the most of his chances. Lieuwen’s size is his biggest advantage, and he is quick with his legs as well. He can make up for a judgment mistake with that same pad quickness. Lieuwen has taken full advantage of his opportunity in the AHL. He has a 17-9-0-2 record, with a 2.37 GAA and .920 save pct.
Lieuwen has a good opportunity and may be battling Hackett for the starting full time job in Rochester come the 2014-15 season.
Matt Hackett was one of the pieces acquired by the Buffalo Sabres in the trade for Jason Pomminville in 2013. Hackett had climbed his way up the Wild depth charts, only to see himself surpassed by Darcy Kuemper and become expendable.
Hackett has the potential to steal a game with his quick glove hand, and has a good read on the puck. However, he has been known to have an attitude problem. Hackett has been known to take bad penalties, and thrown tantrums on the ice during games. Hackett famously left the arena after the 2013-14 home opener, in which the Amerks lost 8-1, without speaking to the media.
The Sabres acquired him with a plan in mind, but with Tim Murray in charge, Hackett may not fit into long term plans. Hackett is not having a strong season overall in Rochester, either. His record is 13-15-0-2 with a 2.89 GAA, and .904 save pct.
The most recent acquisition is 25-year-old Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth has some potential to become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. With the Capitals, Neuvirth was in a rotation for the past three years with Braden Holtby, and most recently had starts taken away by Philipp Grubauer.
Neuvirth is a very athletic goaltender, for his size, and is very quick with his lower body. Quickness combined with crazy flexibility could become a great combination long term for a goaltender in the NHL. His career numbers are 59-42-13 with a 2.67 GAA, and .911 save pct.
So far with Buffalo, Neuvirth has been impressive, but it’s a small sample size. He made 42 saves on 44 shots in his debut against Florida.
Last, but certainly not least, is Jhonas Enroth. Drafted in 2006, Enroth has been around forever is seems. He has been a journeyman backup to Ryan the last three seasons, getting spot starts and covering when Miller was injured. It has been a tough go for Enroth in his career to this point, however now that he has been thrown into the spotlight he has shined.
Enroth is small, and one of the smallest in the sport at his position in both height and weight. Enroth gets to pucks and that is the best way to describe him. He is unorthodox, but that seems to cater to his smaller frame. Enroth gets himself positioned correctly, and being smaller means his reaction time does not need to be as good as a larger goalie like Hackett or Neuvirth.
Enroth is still young at 25, and under contract for another year. With the rebuild in full force, it would not be a surprise to give him the starting job next season to see how he handles a 65-70 game workload. Once again, Enroth could be dealt this summer if Tim Murray decides to go along a different path for the future.
The Sabres have options, no doubt. However, for the first time in 22 years, Buffalo does not have an elite goalie to fall back on. Someone needs to step up, and we’ll see who that becomes just down the road.