The hunt for a franchise goaltender


When one thinks about the future of the Buffalo Sabres, names such as Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen come to mind. The Sabres have been able to build a strong pool of talented prospects throughout the past number of years at both offense and defense, to the point where fans can probably draw up what the team’s lines will be five years from now today. One position where a question mark remains on those hypothetical lines is goaltending.

Fans wonder who the Sabres starting goaltender will be when the team is competitive. Will it be Chad Johnson? Will it be Robin Lehner? Will it be a goaltender that fans haven’t seen a whole lot of? Buffalo has a number of young goaltenders on the roster, a couple of which actually have the potential to develop into strong NHL players. Due to a shear number of prospects that the Sabres have in goal, the answer to the question of ‘who will be in goal when the team makes it to the playoffs’ may already be on the roster.

Chad Johnson had the best year of his six-year career in 2015-16, finishing with a record of 22-16-5 while posting a save percentage of .920% and a goals against average of 2.36 goals per game. Johnson was not expected to be Buffalo’s starter this season, but came in for an injured Robin Lehner during the first game of the season and never looked back. Johnson played in over half of the Sabres games this season, single-handedly winning games for the team on multiple occasions.

Although Johnson played well for the rebuilding Sabres in 2015-16, he is not the franchise goaltender that the Sabres need. He is already 29 years of age, and will be 30 years old by the time the 2016 NHL Entry Draft comes along. This past season was also the last year of Johnson’s contract, as he will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. Many teams will be interested in a backup goaltender that has proven that he secure 20 wins in a season, and will be willing to pay him at least a couple of million dollars per year.

While Johnson doesn’t fit into the Sabres plans for the future as a starter, he would perfectly fit into a backup role on a team looking to to make a run for the Stanley Cup. The Sabres should look to trade the negotiating rights to his contact at the draft in an attempt to gather some more late round picks, as getting something for a goaltender that will demand a lot of attention on the open market would be better than getting nothing for him.

Robin Lehner had won the Sabres starting job in training camp and the pre-season, but unfortunately went down with a high ankle sprain in the second period of the team’s season opener on October 8th. Lehner would not return to the team until January 15th, only to re-aggravate the injury before receiving season ending surgery on March 30th.

Although Lehner did not have the season that the majority of Sabres fans had hoped for, he played well in the small amount of games that he played, finishing the season with a 5-9-6 record as well as a .924% save percentage.

Although Johnson had a statistically better season than Lehner in 2015-16, Lehner is the goaltender that the organization believes will take them into the future. After acquiring Lehner and David Legwand from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for the 21st overall selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Sabres’ general manager Tim Murray stated that “he was the number one goalie available from (the team’s) estimation,” and that Lehner will eventually “become a starter.”

The Swedish goaltender is only 24 years of age, and has the size and skill to develop into one of the best goalies in the game. If Lehner can stay healthy, he has the potential to play well enough to get the Sabres to the playoffs, and win the team some games once they’re there.

Taking Lehner’s roster spot when he went down early in the season was fellow Swede Linus Ullmark, a 22 year old who was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Ullmark received a fair number of starts throughout the first half of the season, making his NHL debut in a 4-3 loss against the New Jersey Devils on October 24th before going on to post a 8-10-2 record.

Ullmark was reassigned to the Rochester Americans upon Lehner’s return, and was again called up by the Sabres at the end of the season, and actually got the start and the win in the team’s last game of the season, a 4-3 overtime win against the New York Islanders.

Besides Lehner, Ullmark perhaps has the most potential to develop into a starting goaltender. Like Lehner, Ullmark has the size that Tim Murray looks for in a goalie, and could easily make the opening night roster as the backup to Robin Lehner next season. If things go according to Murray’s plans, the Sabres could have a duo of Swedes guarding the Sabres net for the foreseeable future.

Also seeing some time with the main roster this season was Jason Kasdorf. Kasdorf, who was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in the Evander Kane deal in February of 2015, signed an entry-level contract on March 14th, and made his NHL debut in the team’s 2015-16 home finale, a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kasdorf spent the majority of the 2015-16 season playing for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s hockey team, finishing with a 12-12-5 and a 2.30 goals against average for the Engineers.

Kasdorf, 23, will be a restricted free agent this offseason due to the age at which he signed his entry-level deal. Buffalo will likely tender his contact and eventually sign him to a new deal, allowing him to compete for the starting job in Rochester next season.

Another goalie that may be competing for the starting job in Rochester next year is Nathan Lieuwen. The Abbostford, British Columbia-native has been with the Sabres organization since 2011, and has played for the Rochester Americans since the 2012-13 season. Lieuwen even made seven appearances for the Sabres throughout the 2013-14 season, but was only able to secure one win along with a .906% save percentage.

Lieuwen, who will turn 25 in August, will be an RFA this offseason. As he continues to string together mediocre seasons in Rochester, it looks more and more like he is developing into a career AHL player. The Sabres will likely sign Kasdorf over Lieuwen due to Kasdorf’s (slightly) younger age, letting Lieuwen walk into free agency. Sabres prospect and current Notre Dame goaltender Cal Petersen (who had a 19-11-7 record for the Fighting Irish last season) could step into Lieuwen’s role in Rochester, leaving Lieuwen without a spot on the roster.

Johnson, Kasdorf and Lieuwen are all on expiring contracts, and teams in desperate need of some sort of stability at goaltender such as Arizona, Edmonton and Winnipeg may be willing to offer low risk, high reward contacts to these players.

The Sabres have already lost a goaltender this offseason, as former Americans goaltender Andrey Makarov announced on his Twitter that he has left the team and is going back to his home country of Russia, presumably to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Makarov is the first goaltender that the Sabres have parted ways with this offseason and likely won’t be the last.

Although it is unsure who the Sabres goaltender will be when they’re finally a competitive team, one thing is for sure – they are getting better. The team nearly finished with a .500 record this past season.

The Sabres have a number of prospects in goal that could develop into something special, and this combined with the strong pool of prospects the Sabres have gathered in other positions, make for a very exciting future for Sabres fans.

[td_block_social_counter facebook="BuffaloHockeyCentral" twitter="BHCdotcom" custom_title="Follow BHC:" header_color="#002654" open_in_new_window="y"]