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Back in 2001, when we basically gave the Detroit Red Wings the Stanley Cup and began our decline after the 2000-2001 season. The Sabres had three quality goaltending prospects in Martin Biron, Mika Noronen, and Ryan Miller.
Martin Biron was the starter in training, Mika Noronen was emerging as a top goaltender in the AHL, and Ryan Miller was beginning to make a name for himself at Michigan State.
I remember at the time I favored Mika Noronen to eventually emerge as the starting goaltender of the future. Noronen ended being the 3rd wheel sandwiched in between the superstar prospect Ryan Miller, and the quality veteran Martin Biron. Martin Biron was though of by many as good enough to start and win with, but not quite good enough to win big with as the starter because of his inconsistency.
In fairness to Biron, he did do some nice things with Philadelphia, and they rode him to an Eastern Conference Final.
I will always remember the 2005-06, season for two things:
#1.) Ryan Miller scoring on himself in the first game vs the Islanders.
#2.) Martin Biron's 13 game winning streak. Streaky was Marty's middle name. When Biron got hot, it sucked to be the opposing team.
To me, Biron's winning streak really got the Season going. They went in 9-9-1 in November and by December, they ended the streak before Christmas time 23-11-1. After spending the previous few seasons on the outside of the playoffs, I knew at that point this team was the real deal again.
We all know how this story ended.
Martin Biron left Buffalo as the most popular and beloved backup goaltender this team ever had, Mika Noronen got traded to Vancouver and then went back to Europe, and Ryan Miller became the face of the franchise.
Now, close to a decade later since the emergence of Ryan Miller, the Sabres find themselves in similar position they were in during 2001. There is often talk about the Sabres forward and defense prospects, but few people give as much thought to the Sabres goaltending prospects as much as they should.
They find themselves packing a really interesting crop of young goaltenders.
As a major positive, the Sabres have themselves good talented goaltenders with upside at every level within their system;
Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth in the NHL,
Linus Ullmark, who's on his way over soon.
Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth
What can I say, I like both these guys.
There's not really much to say about Jhonas Enroth at this point, he could be something more than what he is. I can see Enroth taking the starting job and being the guy, but I think it's more likely he ends up as a career backup. Enroth is not a bad guy at all to bridge the gap in goal for the Sabres. There is no doubt, Jhonas Enroth has had is moments for the Buffalo Sabres, particularly back in 2011 when he helped get the Sabres into the playoffs and showed tremendous poise and confidence. He also helped reestablish the backup goaltender void vacated by Martin Biron when he was traded. Do we remember how bad Patrick Lalime and Jocelyn Thibault were?
With Ryan Miller gone, the goaltending job long term is basically Enroth's to lose.
For Michal Neuvirth, I think Buffalo is very fortunate to have been able to flip Halak for a guy as talented as Neuvirth, despite his inconsistencies. It's also not too often you can acquire a veteran who still has a little upside to be better, and also comes with some playoff experience as well.
Is Neuvirth going to be the next elite goaltender for the Sabres?
I don't think so, but I do believe he can be a solid starter for the Sabres, and even help bridge the gap until the Sabres find their guy who can be their next great goaltender.
The AHL'ers whom are close to getting a shot at the NHL
Nathan Lieuwen and Matthew Hackett
Out of all the goaltenders the Sabres have in the system, I might have the least hope at this point for Matt Hackett. He's taken a step back in his development this season with Rochester, but he did show some promise in his NHL debut. But overall, he has not found his way in the Sabres system since being dealt by the Minnesota Wild in the Pominville trade. He has regressed ever since. However, the advantage to having Hackett around is his poise and NHL experience.
One of the things I immediately like about Nathan Lieuwen is his size. At 6'5, he goes well with the NHL's trend of big tall goaltenders. He's been very good for Amerks this season and he's been among the top 5 Goaltenders in the AHL. He has received high marks and praise for his play this season. The potential is there for both guys, but I think at this point Nathan Lieuwen might have a better shot at a future in the NHL than HackettL with a year or two of seasoning in the AHL.
The Raw Prospects: Andrey Makarov and Linus Ullmark
Now we arrive at the fun part. This is where the Sabres Future in goal really begins. I honestly believe that if any one of these goaltenders in the Sabres system is going to be the future anchor in the crease, then it will be one of these two guys. That's not to take anything away from the other guys, as any one of them have the potential to take the reigns. However, potential is not always reached.
Both Ullmark and Makarov are two goalies with some serious potential, and they bode some interesting resumes so far. The downside to both of them is that they are both very raw prospects and need proper developing before they can be relied on to be full time starters in the NHL. However, they are both developing well so far and both have the potential to be top NHL calliber goaltenders.
Makarov is best known for the 2012 World Junior Championships, where he put on one of the greatest goaltending performances the tournament has ever seen when, as the backup goalie, he relieved incumbent starter Andrei Vasilevski with six minutes left and a one-goal lead in the semifinal against Canada. He held the fort down, and Russia would win, 6-5.
He had a nice showing in the World Juniors in 2013, and has looked good in Rochester so far. I remember Makarov from the 2012 NHL draft where he was regarded as a sleeper.
Andrey is a patient and composed goalie who is very athletic, and plays with tremendous calmness to complement his amazing footwork. He plays with a narrow upright goalie stance similar to Evgeni Nabakov.
As of right now Linus Ullmark is my personal favorite in the system.
Ullmark is the youngest goaltender in the system, and as of right now he is establishing himself in the Swedish Elite League as one of the best goaltenders.
He also might be the fastest rising goaltender in the Sabres system, and maybe in the NHL.
Since Henrik Lundquvist came over in 2005, the NHL has seen a flood of Swedes in goal like never seen before. From Jhonas Enroth, to Robin Lehner, to Eddie Lack, Sweden is the hot trend in the NHL for goaltenders.
To this point, Ullmark has gained the role of starter in as much as there is one. He’s played 35 of the team’s 55 games and leads the SHL with a .931 save percentage and is seventh overall with a 2.08 goals-against average. He may be the team's MVP this season and has given them a chance to win every game so far. That's a huge plus for such a young goaltender.
"What if none of the above is the answer"? The Sergei Bobrovsky Route
The trade market is an interesting option the Sabres can explore down the road.
"The Great Dane" has been ultra impressive for the Ducks this season at 19-5 with a .925 save %.
Jonas Hiller is a Free Agent to be and if Ryan Miller becomes a free agent, then certainly Anaheim could be a destination. Why do they pursue Ryan Miller?
The Ducks are a team trying to win a Stanley Cup, so they will ask themselves the question: "Is Hiller good enough?" The U.S born John Gibson is the Ducks goaltender of the future 5-6 years from now, and how sweet would it be for Anaheim to sign another U.S born netminder in Ryan Miller this offseason. Also, from a business perspective, Ryan Miller is a bonafied Superstar goaltender, and marquee player. Miller only adds to Anaheim's collection of marquee talent with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Ryan Miller has been rumored to want to be somewhere in, or near California. Anaheim seems like an ideal match if Ryan Miller leaves St.Louis, and if Jonas Hiller is allowed to walk this offseason.
Frederick Andersen is not someone being moved right away, but the 6'4 220 lb Great Dane could be moved when John Gibson appears more ready. If Andersen still looks good 2-3 years from now when the Sabres are a quality team again, he could be an appealing option if things did not look good within the system.
The NHL Draft: Thatcher Demko Option
I would say the biggest downside to the Sabre's goaltending in the system is that they lack an elite goaltending prospect who is more of a sure thing along the lines of a John Gibson or Malcom Subban. As talented as Ullmark and Makarov are, they are both raw talents who can realistically go either way.
I do believe the Sabres might even add yet another top goaltender to the system next season. The San Deigo California native, Thatcher Demko might be the best goaltender in the NHL draft next season.