Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray has had a busy offseason. The team unsurprisingly (but perhaps disappointingly) missed the playoffs in 2015-16, despite a marked improvement in the standings. There are some issues that the team needed to address as the draft and free agency loomed, and Murray has worked diligently to be sure next season will be a better one.
Expectations are high for the Sabres this season, and though improvements have certainly been made, there are a few glaring holes in Buffalo’s lineup that need to be addressed. A left-handed defenseman to pair with Rasmus Ristolainen might be top of the list, but it could be easy to overlook Buffalo’s biggest weakness at this time: goaltending.
Murray bet big on former Ottawa Senator Robin Lehner on the summer of 2015, and thus far it hasn’t paid off. Lehner has been impressive in his time in net for Buffalo, but his time has been limited due to an ankle injury that occurred in Buffalo’s first game of the 2015-16 campaign.
Unlucky for sure, but as we learned from the Pittsburgh Penguins during their Cup run, one of the main keys to success is a strong goaltending unit. Buffalo’s netminding tandem has gotten weaker since the season’s end, as Chad Johnson left the shores of Lake Erie to back up Brian Elliot in Calgary.
In his stead, Murray mined the depths of St. Louis’ roster and picked up prospect Anders Nilsson. In his brief career of just over 50 games, Nilsson has carried a 0.900 save percentage and a hefty 3.09 goals against average. Those numbers are enough to bring a chill to Sabres fans, despite the current heat wave.
It is an odd time for Buffalo. If Lehner struggles with injuries for the third consecutive year, the Sabres could very well end up underachieving and missing the playoffs.
They have a lot of talent in net with young players like Linus Ullmark, Cal Petersen, and Jason Kasdorf, but these goalies need time and experience before they will be NHL ready.
There is a huge vacuum behind Lehner — a definitive gap between the Swede and his youthful counterparts.
Peterson and Kasdorf stood out in the NCAA with Notre Dame and RPI, respectively. Ullmark is the most experienced of the three, but he has had injury issues of his own, with double hip surgery in the spring of 2015.
His 20-game stint with the Sabres was a moderate success. Ullmark won eight of his starts, despite missing development camp, training camp, and the preseason. In his time with the Sabres, he demonstrated an athletic and reactionary style. This proved to be both a strength and a weakness, as his first and second saves often put him out of position, which opponents frequently took advantage of.
Ullmark missed his second consecutive development camp, tweeting that illness kept him from attending.
In his stead, Cal Petersen shone brightly. Petersen came in following his best season for the Fighting Irish, finishing the season with a 0.927 save percentage and a 2.20 GAA. At camp, he finished up where he left off, outplaying the competition and leading his team to victory in the Blue and Gold scrimmage, shutting down opponents like Alexander Nylander and Rasmus Asplund.
Though Nilsson is Buffalo’s expected backup and Ullmark will likely start the season as the Rochester American’s starting goaltender, Petersen may be the biggest surprise of the coming season. If he plays well, he may find himself in a more prominent role with the Sabres.
Murray’s moves this offseason have suggested that he is in a ‘win now’ mindset, and because of this, he doesn’t have time to suffer through mediocre goaltending. Should Lehner be bitten again by the injury bug, Buffalo will need a solid netminder to backstop the team, and if Nilsson and Ullmark continue to be sub-par, Petersen could easily end up with substantial playing time.
The uncertainty surround Buffalo’s goaltending is certainly harrowing, but a strong season by either Lehner or Petersen could set fans’ minds at ease.