Last week on Sportsnet’s 31 Thoughts podcast, Jeff Marek & co. brought up the Sabres and their goaltending situation. Per the podcast, the Sabres reportedly tried to create a trade market for netminder Robin Lehner and were unable to do so.
According to the podcast, the Sabres organization reportedly doesn’t feel that Linus Ullmark is quite ready to hit the NHL full-time and that he is still a year away.
Question is... is he?
First and foremost, Ullmark would need to clear waivers in order to be sent to Rochester next season. Is that really a risk the Sabres organization would take?
The report also seems contradictory to some things that have been said publicly by members of the Sabres organization.
After the Amerks’ recent game in Buffalo back in February, head coach Chris Taylor spoke incredibly highly of Ullmark - so much so that I half-expected to hear that he’d been recalled immediately after, that Lehner had been traded, and that Ullmark was up to stay.
”I just said to everybody, this guy’s going to be unbelievable in the NHL. It’s great how far he’s come, and tonight just showed how really good of a goaltender he is,” Taylor said.
Back in January, Sabres head coach Phil Housley had positive things to say about Ullmark, saying he hoped Ullmark would provide a spark.
”We feel that he’s earned a start up here,” Housley said. “He’s had a terrific season down in Rochester, being an AHL All-Star, and we’re looking for a spark.”
Later, Housley said the goaltender would go back to Rochester ‘for now’ and continue to develop but would be looked at for a possible call-up again later in the season.
It’s a small sample size of quotes, but does that really sound like an organization who thinks Ullmark needs another year in the AHL?
The Sabres recalled Ullmark again this morning. He joined Lehner and Chad Johnson on the ice for practice at HARBORCENTER.
The 24-year-old has 22 NHL games to his name so far, with the majority of those (20) coming back in the 2015-16 season. Then, he went 8-10-0-2 with a 2.60 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Ullmark has appeared in one NHL game in each of the last two seasons. For the most part, he’s carried the workload with the Amerks in recent years.
Last season, Ullmark appeared in 55 games with Rochester, going 26-27-2 with a 2.87 GAA and .909 save percentage. This year, he’s appeared in 42 games, going 20-11-4 with a .923 save percentage and 2.44 GAA.
His lone NHL game so far this season? A January 11 matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ullmark made a career-high 44 saves, and the Sabres won 3-1 to end a five-game losing streak. His performance that evening included 18 saves in the third period alone.
Taking all of this into consideration, plus the fact that both Lehner (earning $4 million this year) and Johnson (earning $2.5 million) are going to be free agents in July -- is Ullmark ready to make the full-time transition to the NHL next season?
There are only about three and a half weeks left in the Sabres season, making this the perfect time to give him a test run. Give him some games against teams like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Tampa. See how he does, and see how the team does in front of him.
The next question then would be: if Ullmark is in the NHL, who’s the other half of that pairing? Do you re-sign Lehner (eh) or Johnson? Or do you sign another free agent goalie? Among those possibly available: Eddie Lack, Jonathan Bernier, Ondrej Pavelec and Kari Lehtonen.
The Sabres do have a few other goalies in their prospect pipeline, but none that are NHL-ready like Ullmark: Jonas Johansson, Adam Wilcox, Jason Kasdorf.
Having Ullmark full-time in the NHL season would be a risk, but risking waivers to send him back to the AHL would, in my mind, be a bigger one. He’s one of the highlights of the Sabres organization’s goaltending options at this point, and whether he’s your starter next season or a backup to someone else, he wouldn’t be a bad choice to have in the NHL.