During the first game of the season against the Senators when new starting goaltender Robin Lehner went down in the second period with a leg injury, there were many question marks around the Buffalo Sabres and what they were going to do at the goalie position. With an unproven Chad Johnson as the next man up, Buffalo struggled early on in the season starting off 3-7 in the first 10 games.
Then came rookie Linus Ullmark who many thought wouldn't be healthy until November or December. Ullmark impressed enough in his debut against the Devils to stay up in Buffalo. Now after 6 starts, Ullmark is 4-2 giving the Sabres a chance in every game he has played. In his previous two starts, Ullmark has had over 30 saves including a few clutch saves to close out the victory.
Now that the Sabres are one of the hottest teams in the NHL winning 5 of the last 6, questions are emerging what will happen at goalie when Robin Lehner returns because of the solid play by both Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark. Buffalo is now 8-8 after a victory against the Florida Panthers and only one point out of a playoff spot with 16 points. This team is contending just fine without Lehner.
The offense is playing at a very high level masking any struggles Johnson and Ullmark have on occasions. Statistically speaking it seems plausible to keep Ullmark with Lehner and waive Chad Johnson who has a league low in save percentage for goalies starting at least 10 games.
The other option Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma have is similar to what the Sabres did a few years back with Jhonas Enroth. With Patrick Lalime backing up Ryan Miller, Buffalo wanted to keep playing a hot young goalie in Enroth. What Darcy Regier did is a strategy Tim Murray could replicate. Regier sent Enroth down to the AHL continuing to develop his raw ability. When Buffalo gave Miller a breather, Enroth was called up and would get the nod to start. The Sabres could very well keep Johnson for insurance purposes but have Ullmark play when Lehner is rested.
However we cannot assume that there will be a starting job waiting for Lehner when he returns. The Sabres really like what they have in Ullmark who is only 22 playing in only 8 North American hockey games. He has kept a cool, calm demeanor and has shown the stage isn't too big for the former SHL goalie of the year. Against the Panthers, Ullmark made 3 huge stops including a sprawling head save to clinch the Sabres 3-2 victory. The rush by Florida came with under a minute left, but Ullmark shut the door.
The same happened last Saturday against the Canucks, Ullmark had 35 saves and was the single reason Buffalo won a close 3-2 match up against Vancouver. The offense was not generating any chances and the defense was turning the puck over on many occasions. Linus Ullmark showed his incredible size, vision, and athleticism against some of the leagues best play makers in the Sedin twins.
With Johnson I was never comfortable with a lead. Having Ullmark in the net is a different story. He has progressed every game he starts. Early on it seemed the speed of the NHL was a bit too much for Ullmark. Now you see the youngster quickly covering both sides of his crease. He seems to be a lot more aware of where pucks are going.
Ullmark is tied for 13th in the league with a .924 save percentage. For the youngest starting goalie in the NHL, that isn't too bad. If he continues to play this way and the Sabres are in contention for the playoffs, Lehner will likely end up being the second option at goalie.
Trading away a first round pick for the former Senator doesn't look great right now. We knew Ullmark was a special prospect that needed a little more time, Murray got anxious and bought high on a goalie he hand picked when working for the Senators.
Not saying it won't work out but if Ullmark establishes himself as the long term answer at goalie, it doesn't seem smart to give up a first round pick for a backup.
Instead the Sabres could have drafted a defensive prospect to add to a pool that has been picked clean through either trades or having those prospects already making the Sabres.
Don't forget Chad Johnson who had a strong performance against the Lightning in the Sabres 4-1 victory last Tuesday. Although inconsistent, Johnson has showed he can put the team on his back if the team is struggling. He has made some incredible diving saves this year specifically against the Flyers in overtime and the diving blocker save against the Lightning.
The tandem of Ullmark and Johnson have the Sabres competing for a playoff spot, when Lehner returns however I do believe he will be added back into the rotation which leaves Ullmark being sent down or Johnson getting waived.
The best option is having a rotation between Ullmark and Lehenr. Having two very young goalies to build around isn't a bad problem to have. I just felt that at the time of the draft, Buffalo didn't need to make a crazy trade knowing that Linus Ullmark and a few other prospects were waiting in the wings.
Signing somebody like Cam Talbot may have been a smarter option but you can't fault Tim Murray for wanting a potential franchise goalie in Lehner who in his own right is only 23. He looked sharp in the second period against the Senators before getting hurt so hopefully he can come back and add consistency to the goalie group.
It will be interesting to see what Buffalo does with their trio of goalies when Robin Lehner returns. I predict Chad Johnson will end up being waived keeping a hot Linus Ullmark in Buffalo with Robin Lehner. How can you send Ullmark down?
I don't believe in sitting a young player for a veteran just based solly on experience. If a youngster is more talented than you play him. If it wasn't for that than Jake McCabe would still be in Rochester while Mike Weber and Carlo Colaiacavo stink up the joint. Linus Ullmark is giving Buffalo the best opportunity to win each night. The Sabres could retain Johnson anyway who would most likely clear waivers.
Food for thought but no matter what Buffalo seems to be in a good situation at goalie. This didn't seem like the case a few weeks ago, but a young goalie that wears a minion mask from Despicable me has changed that perception and is making his team's front office think twice before giving the reigns back to Robin Lehner.