Although the team’s record in recent years hasn’t shown it, the Buffalo Sabres are becoming one of the most talented teams in the NHL. With young offensive talent such as Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart combined with defensive promise in Rasmus Ristolainen and Dmitry Kulikov, many fans feel as though the Sabres could actually do some damage in the upcoming NHL season.
There’s still one question mark: goaltending.
While it looks as though Robin Lehner will be Buffalo’s starting goaltender when the 2016-17 season commences, fans still don’t know who will serve as the team’s backup goaltender.
The first candidate is Linus Ullmark, a 6’3” Swede who played 20 games for the blue and gold last season, finishing his rookie season with a record of 8-10 and posting a save percentage of .913%. Ullmark has shown that he has the potential to develop into a solid goaltender at the NHL level, but is he ready right now?
General manager Tim Murray likely sees potential in Ullmark, and would like him to play as much hockey as he possibly can. If Ullmark were to play as Lehner’s backup, he would likely only see 20 to 25 starts a year, significantly less than he would see if he were playing as the starting goaltender in Rochester. Although Ullmark is ready to play as the team’s backup at just 22 years of age, sitting him on the bench could harm his development, something Sabres’ management wouldn’t be comfortable doing.
Besides Lehner and Ullmark, the only other goalie currently on the Sabres’ NHL roster is Anders Nilsson. Nilsson, who was acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a fifth round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft earlier on this month, has played in 52 NHL games throughout his four year NHL career, securing 19 wins with a goals against average of 3.09.
Although Nilsson’s stats don’t jump off of the page, he could bring some much needed consistency to the Sabres’ net. Like Lehner, Nilsson is a goaltender with some size. Standing at 6’6”, the 26 year old is actually one inch taller than his fellow Swede. By having two goaltenders with both very similar heights and games, Sabres’ defensemen will know the type of performance they will be getting from their goalie every game, which could help improve their performances in the process.
The Sabres could still be looking for another backup goaltender. One free agent the Sabres’ could sign is Jhonas Enroth, who played parts of six seasons with the Sabres before going onto play as a backup in Dallas and Los Angeles.
The 28-year-old has proved during his time in the NHL that he can be a solid secondary option, but he simply doesn’t have the size that Tim Murray wants from a goaltender.
Murray has shown during his time as general manager that he wants his goaltenders to be at least 6’3” or 6’4”, as evidenced by his acquisitions of Lehner, Nilsson, and current free agent Anders Lindback. Standing at 5’10”, Murray will likely stay away from Enroth despite his solid career thus far.
While there still is a possibility that the Sabres could sign a free agent to compete for the backup position, Buffalo is likely hoping to see the competition for the role unfold between Nilsson and Ullmark. Both goaltenders have yet to hit their prime, and both are hungry to prove that they have what it takes to not only make an NHL roster, but to eventually becoming a starting goalie in the NHL, which should make for some excellent hockey.