The Sabres’ goaltending prospects are eagerly anticipating the opportunities that await next season. They feel they’ve put themselves in position to take advantage of any chance they get.
The problem is it’s unclear where those opportunities will come.
Buffalo’s goalie situation, which features six players on pro contracts, remains fuzzy with Ryan Miller on the roster. If the Sabres don’t trade him, they’ll have Miller and Jhonas Enroth in Buffalo, Matt Hackett carrying the workload in Rochester and one of their three prospects – Connor Knapp, Nathan Lieuwen or Andrey Makarov – as the Amerks’ backup. The Sabres would have to find spots for the other two in the ECHL or another low minor league.
If the Sabres ship out Miller, then Enroth and Hackett would share the duties in Buffalo while two prospects split the crease in Rochester. The Sabres would need to find a team for only one youngster.
The prospects are aware of the Miller saga and crowded depth chart, but they insist they are focusing on themselves and the chance to play at the highest level they can.
“If Ryan Miller’s not here, there’s going to be another guy,” Lieuwen said. “There’s always another guy that’s going to come and try and take that spot. That’s why when you get that opportunity, you’ve got to prove that you’re the best guy.
“Everybody’s going to get their opportunity to play, whether it’ll be in the American League or wherever it is this year with this organization. When I get my opportunity, I’m going to take it, and I have full confidence that I can do that.”
Lieuwen, 21, will be playing his second pro season. As a rookie, he appeared in 27 games for Greenville of the ECHL (14-10-2 record, 2.93 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) and another four games with Rochester (1-2, 2.65, .919). The Sabres selected the 6-foot-5, 192-pounder in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
“Obviously, you’re always striving to improve, and I’d like to see myself do well,” he said. “I really am prepared and preparing for those opportunities when they do come, and that’s what this game’s about. You get your opportunities, you’ve got to prove yourself. I feel like I’m getting ready to prove myself this year, and hopefully I’ll get the shot.”
Knapp also split last season between Rochester and Greenville as a first-year pro. The 23-year-old went 1-6 in Rochester with a 3.34 GAA and .893 save percentage. His numbers were a little better in the ECHL (5-7, 3.05, .909).
“I want to play more,” said Knapp, who watched recently departed David Leggio control the Amerks’ net. “I didn’t play a lot. David was playing great. That was a role for me that I wasn’t used to.
“It was disappointing in one sense but a great learning experience in another. I got a taste of the AHL, then played quite a bit when I went down to Greenville. It was good. It was a great learning experience, and next year I’m a guy that’s been there, so I want to take on a role of a guy that’s more experienced and play more games.”
Knapp, picked in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, will start the second season of a two-year deal. He may feel the most pressure to perform and earn another contract.
“It’s going to be like that my whole career with questions about depth charts,” said the 6-5, 215-pounder. “I know when guys sign. I know David signed with Washington. It just pushes me. When spots start opening up or guys get drafted, it pushes you. You want to be that guy, and it just makes you work harder.”
Makarov is leaving behind a busy year at the junior level to become a pro. The 20-year-old played 65 games for Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League and skated to the crease three times for host Russia at the world junior tournament.
Makarov, signed as an undrafted free agent last fall, went 37-17-5 with a 2.62 GAA and .919 save percentage with Saskatoon. He was 2-1 with numbers of 2.99 and .933 at the world juniors.
“It was a great experience in world juniors, and it was the best experience to play in the Memorial Cup versus the best teams in the league,” said the 6-1, 193-pounder, who is ready for the next challenge. “Buffalo has good goalies on the roster. It’s hard to take a spot because there’s only two goalies on a team.
“I’ll just try to play as hard as I can. I’m trying my best in camp and working as hard as I can to prepare for the next level. It’ll show in training camp who’s supposed to play” at which level.
The Sabres have two more prospects further down the pipeline. Linus Ullmark, drafted in the sixth round in 2012, and Cal Petersen, picked in the fifth round last month, also participated in the team’s development camp last week.
Ullmark, 19, figures he’ll head to North America as soon as 2014-15, but he may wait up to three years depending on his confidence level. He rose quickly through the ranks in Sweden last year, playing at the junior and second-division levels before finishing in the elite league. Ullmark plays for Modo, a well-known organization that has turned out Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund. The latter two are still involved with the club.
“It’s great to have those people around so you can maybe get a hint or something if you want to improve,” said the 6-3, 198-pound Ullmark, who knows a test awaits when he joins the Sabres’ organization. “I love it when it’s a lot of competition around the spots. It keeps me motivated to improve my game and everything around it.”