For 20 years, the Buffalo Sabres have been pretty set in net. That’s not the case now.
Dominik Hasek, Martin Biron and Ryan Miller have played the vast majority of games since Hasek supplanted Grant Fuhr as the No. 1 goaltender during the 1993-94 season. But there’s no longer an iron-clad starter.
Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth figure to be the team’s goaltenders when the season starts in October. They’re both on the last years of their contracts and need to show they can be relied upon as No. 1’s in the NHL, when neither has proved that to any great degree so far in their career.
That’s why the Sabres’ prospect pipeline in goal is so important. New General Manager Tim Murray has openly professed to liking big goalies, hardly an endorsement of the 5-foot-10 Enroth or even the 6-foot-1 Neuvirth.
If the team’s development camp was any indication, the Sabres have plenty of options in goal in the future.
Linus Ullmark, a 6-foot-4 Swede, and 6-3 Nathan Lieuwen were solid in camp and were particular standouts in Friday’s three-on-three tournament. The Sabres drafted 6-4 Swede Jonas Johansson last month in Philadelphia and have 6-2 Cal Petersen from last year’s draft coming off star status in the United States Hockey League and ready to go to Notre Dame.
And although he’s only 6-1, Andrey Makarov had a strong finish to last season as Rochester’s No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs and will battle Lieuwen for the Amerks’ starting spot this year.
“I know we have three or four big goalies coming,” Murray said after camp closed Friday. “I thought they all played well in spurts. It’s hard for me to say if we’re in Game Seven of the second round that one guy is going to step up and make that big save. I don’t know that yet, but I certainly like their size, the tools that they have.”
“Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you’re good,” cautioned Ullmark, a 20-year-old who got big applause from the First Niagara Center crowd for his shutout work in Tuesday’s scrimmage. “You have to be quicker. You can’t just stand in net and think you’re Henrik Lundqvist. You need other stuff, to be agile and quick.”
Injury upon injury
The Sabres reached a crisis point in goaltending – unlike any time in franchise history – at the end of last season after Miller was traded when Enroth (knee) and Neuvirth (hip) both suffered season-ending injuries.
Lieuwen was then felled by a concussion, nerve-racking for the organization because he had suffered one in a serious car accident as a teenager, and Matt Hackett was knocked out with a torn ACL during the second-last game of the year in Boston.
Hackett is going to be sidelined until around Christmas, so how much he can contribute this year remains a mystery. Lieuwen, however, is fully recovered and performed well in camp.
“I’m really pleased with how quickly I progressed, and I feel really good right now,” said Lieuwen, who said he stayed off the ice for nearly six weeks. “Once you start seeing improvement, that’s when I got encouraged. Once you get back on the ice, it’s got to be out of your mind completely. You have to play the same way without holding yourself back.”
Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy, the on-ice director of development camp, fully expects Makarov vs. Lieuwen to be a key training camp story for the Amerks.
“Nathan is completely healthy and cleared right now, and he’s had a really good summer so far,” Cassidy said. “That’s going to be a good competition. We need guys willing to do the work to beat out other guys and that will be one to watch.”
Makarov was an undrafted free agent signed in 2012 who blossomed with Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League and then played well last year in his first pro work, at Fort Wayne of the East Coast League. But he was better in Rochester, posting a 2.20 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 10 games. He was at 3.01, .907 in the five-game playoff loss to Chicago.
“This was a good opportunity last year,” Makarov said. “I got some experience in AHL games and even got called up in the NHL” to be a dressed backup. “It was all a pretty good experience because my dream has been to play in the NHL.”
Makarov said he’s happy with his technical improvements, which he said really got accelerated by playing in the AHL and playing the strong Chicago Wolves in the playoffs.
“I try to be in a good position, get in a good spot,” Makarov said. “I don’t want to leave empty holes and I have to compete and battle for the puck and be good at rebound control. I’m getting better at each level reading pucks and reading plays. You try to know who’s lefty, who’s righty, who’s trying to shoot one-timer. You need to know all that now.”
Puck-stopping in Sweden
Ullmark is probably the most intriguing prospect the Sabres have in goal. Just a sixth-round pick in 2012, he had a breakout year as a 20-year-old for MODO of the Swedish League, posting a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage last year while being named to the league’s all-star team.
He posted 30 minutes of shutout hockey in Tuesday’s development camp scrimmage, making several good saves and putting himself in position to force shooters to strike iron behind him rather than net. He said he had been working on his speed in the crease.
“How fast can I go to the next situation? Make the first save, then go to a rebound and you’re there as fast as possible,” Ullmark said. “I just need to grow up, get older, play some more games.”
Ullmark is from the north part of Sweden and said he does not know Enroth, who is from the south. Ullmark has already signed his entry-level contract with Buffalo but will stay home in Sweden for one more year of seasoning there before joining the Amerks – or maybe even the Sabres – in the 2015-16 season.
“Obviously this is a very good chance for me,” said Ullmark, who said he patterns his game after the similarly sized Pekka Rinne of Nashville. “If you improve your game and guys feel you’re ready for it, it’s awesome. But it’s hard to foresee the future. We have a lot of good goalies here.”
“Lieuwen and Ullmark were the final two goalies, as I think they should be,” Murray said, referring to the elimination games of the team’s three-on-three camp tournament. “They’re a little more along in their development. I like big, athletic goalies. We have the makings of one or two that can probably at least back up and maybe start in this league.”
Elsewhere in Sweden, Johansson is likely to be his country’s starter during the World Junior Championships this year in Toronto and Montreal. He is signed through the 2015-16 season to the Swedish League.
While Makarov, Lieuwen and Ullmark are prospect futures who could impact the Sabres the next year or two, Petersen is an intriguing candidate to get in the mix down the road.
The 6-foot-2, 172-pounder will be starting his college career at Notre Dame this season after a stellar career with Waterloo (Iowa) of the United States Hockey League. In May, Petersen was selected to receive the Dave Peterson Goalie of the Year Award presented annually to the top U.S. goaltender at the international, professional, collegiate or junior level by USA Hockey.
Petersen led Waterloo, his hometown team, to a 44-11-5 overall record and the USHL’s Anderson Cup title as the regular-season champions. He tied for the league lead in wins (27) and finished in the top 10 among USHL goaltenders in goals-against average (2.50) and save percentage (.915). He was a second team all-USHL selection for the season.
Petersen then went 8-4, 2.37, .928 in the playoffs as Waterloo advanced all the way to Game Five of the USHL finals before losing to Indiana.