With all of the intrigue and speculation surrounding the upcoming NHL draft, and the increasingly interesting Ryan O’Reilly trade debate, fans have been relatively silent regarding the Sabres goaltending situation. For nearly a year it has been all but a forgone conclusion that Linus Ullmark would take the reigns as the team’s starter, but who will fill the other goalie slot in Buffalo next season?
At this point, it is all but certain that Chad Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent. Soon to be RFA, Robin Lehner has certainly worn out his welcome in Western New York, and barring something unexpected, he will be on his way out as well.
There are several viable options to fill the void, both in free agency, and via trade. Let’s take a look at a few players who could end up in Buffalo this summer.
Free Agent Options
In his first full season in the NHL, the Sabres will need to handle Ullmark with care. While the 24-year-old netminder has acquitted himself nicely in limited action, there will almost certainly be growing pains as he adjusts to the increased level of competition at the NHL level.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of veteran goaltenders in this year’s crop of free agents who are capable of carrying some of the load in 2018-19.
Last season for the Boston Bruins, Khudobin was a bit hot-and-cold though, he did post his best numbers since 2013-14. From an analytics perspective, his GSAA rating of 3.89 was actually markedly better than Tukka Rask’s score of 0.69.
Throughout his career, the Russian netminder has never really had a terrible year however, he tends to struggle when called upon as a starter for extended stretches of time.
At 32-years-old, his experience as both a starter and a backup makes him an ideal candidate to mentor Ullmark while keeping his starting load relatively light. After earning $1.2 million last season, he will likely look for a significant pay bump on the open market. If the Sabres can swing a deal similar to the one they gave Johnson last summer (one year at $2.5 million), they should strongly consider him as one of their best options.
Hutton had a fantastic season for the St. Louis Blues last year, posting career bests in both goals-against average, and overall save percentage. His GSAA of 9.44 was also far-and-away the highest of his career.
What will be interesting to see is if Hutton garners any interest as a starter on the open market. His performance in 2017-18 has certainly earned him a look but at 32 years old, teams might be looking for younger options. Regardless, while it remains to be seen how competitive the goalie market will be on July 1, his name will likely be at the top of several team’s lists.
Like Khudobin, he should receive a significant raise from the $1.125 million he earned last season.
Lehtonen has never really been spectacular at any point in his NHL career, but he has been extremely predictable from a statistical standpoint. Only once in his career has he saved more than 92-percent of the shots he’s faced, however he has never once slipped below 90-percent.
At 34 years old, his starting days are behind him, and at this point he will likely play out the last few years of his carrer in a reserve role. For this reason, he might just be the perfect guy to bring aboard on a one-year deal.
At the end of the day, signing Lehtonen is a very low-risk move in the sense that you know exactly what you’re getting with him. It goes without saying that he will have to settle for a drastic reduction from his $5.9 million salary last year.
As perhaps the least desirable option on this list, if goaltenders start flying off the shelves early on July 1, the Sabres may have to settle for someone like Pavelec. Unlike the aforementioned soon-to-be free agents, the 30-year-old has been anything but consistent throughout his career.
If Jason Botterill plans to opt for a steadier presence behind Ullmark, he may want to look elsewhere. Even though Pavelec would likely be the least expensive option on this list, the Sabres would need to be confident that he could reclaim the level of play that he put forth during his time in Winnipeg, which was by far the best stretch of his career (until 2016-17 where he was eventually relegated to AHL duties).
He will likely command something close to the $1.3 million that he earned last year on the open market.
With so many reliable players to choose from via free-agency, it would be a little curious for the Sabres to part with draft capital in order to deal for a goaltender currently under contract. Should the open market be a little too rich for Botterill’s blood, perhaps he would be willing to forefit a late-round pick or a B-level prospect.
Let’s examine a few backups around the league who could be made available for the right price.
Darcy Kuemper - Arizona
At 28 years old, Kuemper is a younger option than the other players on this list. If Botterill isn’t convinced that Ullmark is a sure-fire long-term starter in the NHL, he would be an excellent option to compete for the starting job in Buffalo.
Even though he only appeared in 29 games last year between Los Angeles and Arizona, he posted the best numbers of his career. With Antti Raanta firmly entrenched as the starting netminder for the re-building Coyotes, they may be inclined to deal Kuemper for futures.
He is currently signed through the 2019-20 season at a cap hit of $1.85 million per season.
Aaron Dell - San Jose
With Martin Jones locked down until 2024-25, the Sharks might be interested in seeing what they could get for Dell on the trade market. While he has been a reliable backup for them over the past two seasons, he might be a nice bargaining chip to acquire more talent on the farm, an area where they aren’t particularly strong.
Though he didn’t post the same gaudy numbers last season as he did in 2016-17, Dell is still a fantastic back-up and similar to Kuemper, at just 29-years-old, he could compete to become the Sabres long-term starter.
Dell is signed through 2019-20 at an annual cap hit of $1.9 million.
Ryan Miller - Anaheim
Alright, this one is more for fun than anything else, but how cool would it be to see Miller finish his career in Buffalo? Sure, he’s currently very happy in Southern California where he can be close to his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, but maybe he’d be willing to spend one last season in blue-and-gold.
Last year, Miller produced his best stat line since 2009-10 with a .928 save-percentage in 28 games played. His GSAA of 11.01 was good for sixth in the NHL. With years of experience as the face of the Sabres franchise, there is nobody better suited to help Ullmark prepare to become the team’s long-term starter in net.
Okay, back to reality. With an extremely reasonable cap-hit of $2 million per season, the Ducks have absolutely no reason to trade Miller at this time. If John Gibson goes down with an injury, they likely wouldn’t miss a beat in the Pacific Division. It would take a very enticing offer from the Sabres to pry Miller out of Anaheim.
But it’s still fun to think about.