The 2020-21 NHL season starts on Wednesday, and hockey fans all over have been biting their nails in anticipation of the first puck drop.
For fans of some teams, like the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche, the season can’t start soon enough. For fans of others, well, it would be okay if they slept through the upcoming campaign (we feel for you, Red Wings fans).
For fans of the Buffalo Sabres, I’d wager most probably fit into the category of “nervous optimism,” as the team once again looks to sit in between the status of great and not-so-great.
Much of the doubt can be attributed to the fact that, despite some key offseason additions like Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, and more, the Sabres are icing the same goaltending duo from the past two seasons: Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton.
Fans should have every right to be optimistic about the coming year, but the question looms over their heads: Is a duo of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton good enough to help the Sabres into the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Before we answer that question, let’s get things straightened out first. Linus Ullmark is slated to begin the season in the starting position, and for all intents and purposes, the crease is his to lose. The six-foot-four Swede is now 27 years old and has carved out a nice little NHL career for himself.
In 97 career games played (all with Buffalo), Ullmark is 41-41-10, with a 2.81 GAA and .911 SV%, with 3 shutouts. That’s not too bad considering the Sabres’ record since he’s been here, but approaching the 100 games played threshold says it’s time he either cements himself as a legit starter, or he doesn’t.
In what was another disappointing season in 2019-20, Ullmark played the majority of games with 34 appearances, going 17-14-3, and recording a 2.69 GAA and .915 SV%, with a shutout to boot.
His counterpart in net is Carter Hutton, the 35-year old, un-drafted veteran backup who made a name for himself in St. Louis with the Blues. When the Sabres acquired Hutton, it looked like a solid, low-risk deal. Now, I’m not so sure.
It’s not that Hutton has been terrible since his arrival in Buffalo, it’s just that he hasn’t helped to alleviate any of the pains that this roster has given fans over the past two seasons. In fact, he’s contributed his fair share.
Hutton played 31 games last year and posted a record of 12-14-4, with a 3.18 GAA and .898 SV%, plus two shutouts. Those numbers certainly don’t scream “starting goaltender,” but it looks as though we shouldn’t be counting out any possibility of Hutton taking the reins at some point this season.
Sabres Head Coach Ralph Krueger said that Hutton has looked good in training camp, and he flattered with the idea of splitting games between him and Ullmark.
“Somebody gets hot here, they could get a few (starts in a row),” Krueger said. “After our first two back-to-backs, we play 10 games in 19 days, always having a day in between. Somebody gets hot in a stretch like that, why not ride him?”
It’s worth looking at how those outside the Sabres organization are looking at the Ullmark-Hutton tandem, too. FantasyPros ranks Linus Ullmark at #40 out of all the goaltenders in the NHL, while they rank Carter Hutton at #48. The best and worst rankings in the fantasy hockey world for Ullmark have been at #27 and #40 respectively, while Hutton’s best and worst rankings have him at #37 and #55, respectively.
Now, fantasy rankings aren’t always the best metric to rely on, but it does give some insight to the fact that there are people out there who don’t even place one of the Sabres duo in the Top-30 of the league, effectively placing some backups higher than them. While I don’t necessarily agree with that, it’s an interesting fact to consider.
So, based on their performance from last season, and on their projections for 2021, what can we expect from the tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton? And further, is the duo good enough to help the Sabres make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season?
I am going to venture out and say yes – but they are going to need a lot of help from the roster in front of them.
Losing shut-down penalty killer Zemgus Girgensons to injury for the entirety of the season was a huge blow, both to the PK and to the bottom-six’s ability as a defensive checking group. Overall, though, the bottom-six forward group is still in shape to be an improvement upon last year’s, most notably with the addition of guys like Cody Eakin and Tobias Rieder.
Rieder is renowned for his penalty-killing prowess and is expected to step into the role of Girgensons while he sits out to recover from surgery. Who knows, he might even be able to contribute offensively for the team.
The defense has all but taken shape, as well, as fans will likely see the pairs of Dahlin-Montour, McCabe-Ristolainen, and Miller-Jokiharju. All familiar faces, all with the same hopeful upside and potential downside that we’ve come to know so well.
I, for one, remain cautiously optimistic about what this roster can do in the new Mass Mutual East Division, and am almost convinced that, on paper, they can compete with the top teams on the schedule on a nightly basis.
If Ullmark and Hutton get the help they need in front of them, that could go a long way into boosting the Sabres’ playoff hopes for this season.
I am confident Ullmark can take a jump to the next level with his own play, and if that happens, expect things to start clicking for the whole team. For now, let’s start with the season opener.