There is little question that the Buffalo Sabres have entered a new era. Familiar faces that were the keystone of the organization under general manager Tim Murray have been given their walking papers via trade, waivers, or a failure to tender an offer in free agency.
Chief among these Murray acquisitions was goaltender Robin Lehner. Personal issues aside, Lehner came from Ottawa without having proven to be a viable starter. He battled through injuries, along with a carousel of terrible defense, but still gave it his best go for the Sabres. Unfortunately for the netminder, it didn’t work out.
As the 2018-19 season begins, the team has a new look in net. Buffalo again rolled the dice on an unproven goalie, in former St. Louis Blues backup Carter Hutton. Prepared to make the jump to the NHL on a full time basis is the young Linus Ullmark, who will work to glean as much as possible from Hutton over the next two seasons.
Ullmark making this move is exciting. It’s been quite some time since the Sabres developed a goalie from draft day to the NHL. Ullmark has stood out from the crowd since the beginning of his career, and stood on his head in his first prospects camp, giving the fans quite a show in the Blue and Gold Scrimmage.
The 2012 sixth-round draft pick just turned 25 and is right-on-schedule to be prepared to start in the next few seasons. He has given the last three years to the AHL’s Rochester Americans, and his stats early on are somewhat skewed from a double hip surgery he underwent the summer before originally making the jump to North America.
Still, his last season in Rochester was a quality one. In 44 games, Ullmark held a 2.44 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. The moderate stats offer some insight into what we can expect from Ullmark: on most nights, he’s going to make the saves that keep the team in the game. If the preseason is any indicator, that is all Buffalo may need in order to at least improve on last season’s paltry numbers.
Hutton is a more curious case. He is quite an anomaly; at 32, his stats have been improving markedly as he was shipped from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Nashville Predators to the St. Louis Blues and now in Buffalo.
Last year, Hutton backstopped 32 games and held teams to 2.09 goals per game, with a .931 save percentage.
In 2015-16 and again in 17-18, Hutton rocked the penalty kill, posting save percentages at or above .910.
While some of this can be attributed to the St. Louis system, Hutton certainly deserves credit for the mark - the Blues as a team were only 18th in the league on the PK; nearly falling into the bottom-third.
By comparison, Hutton’s counterpart in St. Louis, Jake Allen, held a .834 on the PK. This makes Hutton’s contributions stand out as impressive.
Obviously, there is no way to predict Hutton’s performance in Buffalo, given the variables present; a new team with a lot of youth and a refreshed roster. But Hutton’s improvements as he has aged are a good sign for a Buffalo team that has been desperate for a difference-maker in net since Ryan Miller donned the blue and gold.
Hutton and Ullmark could not be at two more polar points in their careers, but there is reason to believe this tandem should improve Buffalo’s standing in the NHL. Now that the Sabres appear to be solid in net, the team’s defensive pairings can shift focus to transition and joining the offensive rush. It’s true, Buffalo fans - Hutton and Ullmark may very well be the first step to having this Sabres team look like an actual NHL squad.