What’s the old adage?
“If you have two starting goalies, you really don’t have any?”
Yeah well, that’s not the case for the Sabres in the early going. Both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have done a great job in net, helping lead Buffalo to a 5-4 record to start the season. With each of them performing at a high level, fans have started to form different opinions on who should receive a lion’s share of the starts moving forward.
We’ll start with Ullmark, who has been all but perfect in his two starts, stopping 55 of the 56 shots he’s faced. Following his first game as the lead man in net (a 36 save shutout against the Arizona Coyotes), a significant portion of the fan base was disappointed to see Hutton start the following game. There’s definitely merit to the “roll with the hot hand” argument, especially considering the fact that Ullmark helped his team steal a game where they were arguably outplayed.
In reviewing the unblocked shot map from that contest, it’s becomes apparent just how many of the Coyotes’ shots on net were taken from high-danger areas. The fact that Ullmark made 36 saves is even more impressive given the shot location ratio.
Comparatively, Antti Raanta was not nearly as effective in thwarting the Sabres’ high-danger attempts, allowing two goals in that area despite a much smaller saturation of chances.
In looking at the heat map from Ullmark’s latest victory against the Los Angeles Kings this past weekend (where he stopped 19 of 20 shots faced), it’s pretty clear that he had a much easier go of things as the Sabres’ defense was considerably more effective at limiting high-danger shots-against.
This game marked what could very well be the best defensive performance of the Sabres’ season thus far, so his limited workload isn’t exactly surprising.
With just the two starts under his belt so far, the sample size is small and there’s no way of knowing for sure just how capable the 25-year-old would be at maintaining his current all-situation GSAA of 3.39. Either way, that mark currently places him eighth in the league among goalies with two or more starts. His high-danger save percentage of 100 at five-on-five is tied for the league lead (obviously) with four other goalies.
Not to take away from Ullmark’s respective performances because they’ve been excellent, but it’s also important to note that the Coyotes rank dead-last in the NHL in even-strength scoring while the Kings currently sit at seventh from the bottom. Those matchup decisions are a testament to Phil Housley’s ability to chose favorable situations for his young goaltender as he acclimates to NHL action.
Shifting the focus toward Hutton, it’s also clear to see why Housley has continued to roll with him as the team’s primary starter. While at first glance his basic stats aren’t particularly impressive, posting a relatively mediocre .909 save-percentage, he’s had to carry the team through some of their less inspiring defensive performances.
One such occasion came during the Sabres’ first victory of the season at home against the New York Rangers. Buffalo was badly out-shot in the contest (44-29), relenting a significant amount of high-danger shots on net at five-on-five.
This represents another prime example of Hutton simply out-battling the opposing netminder. The Sabres accomplished nothing at even-strength, but they were able to maintain their lead due in large part to their goaltender despite a third period team Corsi-for of 38.78-percent.
Conversely, his performance was less-than stellar against the Colorado Avalanche. With a similar congestion of high-danger opportunities, Hutton was not nearly as effective, though it’s worth mentioning that two of Colorado’s goals came on unimpeded breakaways.
Through seven starts, Hutton still boasts a five-on-five high-danger save percentage of 86.21, good for ninth among starting goalies. Interestingly enough, his high-danger save-percentage of 64.71 on the penalty-kill is the 27th best mark in the league among starters, but that’s just as much of an indictment of the Sabres’ PK unit, which also currently ranks 27th in the league.
Again, noting the small sample size, his current all-situation GSAA of 0.21 is significantly lower than the mark of 16.92 he posted in 32 appearances last season with the St. Louis Blues.
So where does that leave us? Both goalies have performed well, each showing that they are capable of carrying the team through poor Corsi performances. Fortunately for Housley, there isn’t really a bad decision to be made regarding who his starter will be on a given night. It appears at this point that he’ll continue to run with Hutton as the primary starter, which is consistent with Jason Botterill’s offseason sentiment about easing Ullmark into a full-time NHL role.
If the Swedish netminder can continue to post strong numbers in spot duty, don’t be surprised if he begins stealing a higher proportion of the starts as the season wears on.
Either way, fans should be thrilled that the Sabres’ situation in between the pipes is actually an area of strength this year, compared to the abysmal performances of both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson last season. As a duo, they posted GSAA’s of -10.65 and -18.32 respectively in 2017-18. Their high-danger save percentage of 75.27 at five-on-five also ranked near the bottom of the league.
Corsi Stats Courtesy of Corsica.Hockey
Shot Heat Maps Courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com