The path to the NHL has been an uphill climb for Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark. The 25-year old Swedish netminder has yet to crest 50 games in the NHL, but is already establishing himself as a solid backstop against some of the world’s best players, and the fact that he is on an NHL roster at all is a miracle, considering what the rookie backup has had to go through.
Selected by the Sabres in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Ullmark was a standout for MODO’s J20 squad, with a .918 save percentage and a 2.76 goals against average. Over the next two seasons, Ullmark would improve greatly on those numbers, moving into the senior league at just 18-years-old and posting just over two goals per game, alongside a ludicrous .934 save percentage in 41 games combined.
His performance dulled some in the 2014-15 season, and in April of that year, Ullmark underwent double hip surgery that called for four to six months of rehab. It was a risky move for a player set to make the jump to North America. By mid-October, though, the now 22-year-old was on the ice and was nearly unsolvable for the AHL’s Rochester Americans. He made nearly 100 saves in his first three starts, and before you could say ‘minion mask,’ the Swedish star was in the NHL to help spell a flailing Chad Johnson after starter Robin Lehner went down with an ankle sprain.
Ullmark dazzled early in his NHL debut. He ended up playing 20 games for the Sabres, with a 2.60 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. His numbers obviously came back down to earth during his quarter-season stay, but the mark he made on Buffalo and its fans was indelible. He was a bright spot in a grim year that gave the Queen City little to love about their hockey team.
When Lehner had recovered, Ullmark was sent back down the 90, where he performed admirably on a Rochester squad that was running on fumes under poor management. His performances even netted the netminder an AHL Player of the Week nod in 2016.
While the Americans struggled for consistency, Ullmark flourished. Lehner and Johnson continued as Buffalo’s tandem, and Ullmark rarely got the call-up, playing just six games over the next two years. On the back of his strong play, the Amerks finally made the playoffs in the 2017-18 season - the first time since 2014. It was his stallworth presence that helped drive the team to the postseason, and garner the attention of general manager Jason Botterill and Sabres coach Phil Housley. The staff was so impressed that the team shuttled both Lehner and Johnson in the face of the 2018-19 season, leaving Ullmark as the only qualified goaltender on the roster.
Eventually, the club added Carter Hutton to the roster, and Ullmark would take a slight bump in title. Sill, the coaches have demonstrated their trust in Ullmark several times throughout the season, and Ullmark has rarely let them down. He’s the only Buffalo goalie with a shutout this season (2) and edges Hutton in save percentage by a slight margin. As of this writing, Ullmark is posting an impressive 5.62 goals saved above average; Hutton only 3.74. He has stood out on the penalty kill this year, with a .897 save percentage - seventh best in the league among goalies with at least 15 games.
There are those who think Ullmark has earned the opportunity to split time with Hutton, and given the statistical comparison, there is a reasonable argument to be made. The good news is that the pendulum still seems to be swinging upward for the Swede, and not only does he have room to grow, but seems to be developing toward that pinnacle.
Ullmark may not be ready to be a full time, playoff, NHL starter, but he’s come a long way from a sixth round pick that needed double-hip surgery. He is a legitimate goaltender, and by the time the wrinkles in the Sabres roster are ironed out, Ullmark could very well be the caliber goalie that no one thought he’d be seven years ago.