Ullmark earning his way to No.1

As the Expansion Draft of 2017 approached, many Buffalo Sabres fans were a bit uneasy. Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee held all the cards. He was free to pluck any unprotected player by the expansion draft rules to the tune of one from each organization.

It was somewhat unknown as to whom McPhee would poach from the Sabres, but one of the likely candidates was goaltender Linus Ullmark.

Freshly-hired Sabres GM, Jason Botterill, had to make a choice; allow Vegas to take Ullmark and face even greater uncertainty in goal moving forward, or send some compensation to coerce the Knights into taking another unprotected player. He chose the latter, and Vegas instead took forward William Carrier while also receiving a sixth-round pick as a sweetener.

The theory at the time is that Ullmark would one day become the starter in Buffalo. Have we reached the point where it’s his time.

After the abysmal last-place finish in 2017-18, the Sabres were in need of a major goaltending shake-up. Jettisoned were goaltenders Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who were at least, mostly responsible for the teams’ atrocious mark of 280 goals allowed.

Enter Linus Ullmark, from Rochester, and newly-signed free-agent Carter Hutton. Hutton signed a three-year, $8.25 million-dollar deal to presumably become the starter for the upcoming season. Questions began to swirl around the deal, as Hutton had never been entrusted to be a full-time starter, though his numbers with the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues were quite good, and of course, what did that deal mean for Ullmark?

Hutton was looking forward to having a starting job in Buffalo, and even told NHL Network that he’d love to play 55 or more games, and that he plays better when he gets more minutes.

But Hutton also knew who was backing him up.

“At the same time, we have a good, young goalie who’s going to be my partner in Ullmark, so for me it will be fun to be in that different stage now where I’m not the young guy and I can do a good job of helping him out to learn the ropes in the NHL.”

Thus, on opening night, Hutton was between the pipes. The Sabres dropped their first contest to the Boston Bruins, but Hutton back-stopped two beautiful wins against the New York Rangers and the Golden Knights.

Sabres fans weren’t quite as anxious to see the “supposed” backup netminder when the starter was playing so well. It took until October 13th for Ullmark to see a start, and he responded with a blanking of the Arizona Coyotes in Glendale.

Once the now-legendary 10-game winning streak commenced on November 8th, in Montreal, both goaltenders had performed admirably, but Hutton was still being given the majority of the starts. Phil Housley really didn’t feel the push to start Ullmark more than the approximately once-per-week start he was getting at the time. However, once the streak was broken against Tampa Bay, the goaltending question became exactly that.

Since the Tampa Bay streak-busting loss on November 29th, there have been more calls for Ullmark to be the full-fledged starter. The numbers seem to back that up. In December, Hutton started eight games, won only one of them, compiled a .918 save percentage, and roughly a 2.63 goals against average. For reference, the NHL average for save percentage this year is .909 and the goals against average is 2.85. Thus, his numbers were actually better than average, but the entire team, let alone Hutton, just didn’t have that extra-edge that helped propel them through the big streak. As a result, Housley went looking for some answers.

Line shuffling and power-play movement were the orders of the day, but interestingly enough, Ullmark’s presence seemed to stem the tide a bit. Since December 11th, as the Sabres were mired in several losing streaks of their own, the 25-year old, Swedish netminder has posted some impressive numbers.

Ullmark has five starts in that time, and has gone 4-1, posting a .943 save percentage, and a 2.00 goals against average, making 35, 40, and 35 stops in three of those wins.

It’s no secret that the Sabres allow significantly more shots on goal than they’d like to.

So, both goaltenders have seen their fair share of rubber this year, but as it stands, Ullmark seems to be heating up, while Hutton seems to have settled to a slightly-above average goaltender for the time being.

The numbers point to Ullmark perhaps getting more opportunity as the starter in Buffalo moving forward. It stands to reason that he’s now ready for such duties after being slowly marinated in Rochester for parts of three seasons.

It’s time to see what Ullmark can do with a heavier workload. If the Sabres are going to indeed make the postseason for the first time in seven seasons, they’re going to need very strong goaltending, which Ullmark has been giving them of late.

Craig Schutts
Millersville Alumni; Life-long Buffalo sports fan; Part-time writer and podcaster until they throw me out!
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