With the arrival of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in the Buffalo Sabres’ developmental pool, goaltender Jonas Johansson was somewhat of a forgotten man among fans in Western New York. As we approach the mid-way point of the 2019-20 season, interest in the 24-year-old has been reignited to an extent. In 15 starts for the Rochester Amerks this season, he boasts a 10-2-2 record and a save-percentage of .933.
Historically, goalies take longer to hit their primes. Still, nothing about Johansson’s development leading up to this season inspired much confidence pertaining to his prospects as a future NHL player.
During the first period of their game against the Laval Rockets on December 13, Amerks broadcaster, Don Stevens interviewed Sabres’ goalie development coach, Seamus Kotyk who explained why he felt that Johansson has made such significant strides from last season where he posted a pedestrian .908 save-percentage in 27 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL.
“I feel he’s more consistent than in years past,” Kotyk stated. “That’s also a result of more ice time, more practice time, and just being around Rochester permanently.”
Rotational co-starter, Andrew Hammond has also fared well behind the Amerks’ strong defensive core, posting a .912 save-percentage and a 10-2-4 record in 17 appearances this season. In fact, his production level so far is his best since posting a .941 save-percentage (not to mention 20 victories) in 24 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2014-15.
The primary reason this topic has become a discussion point as of late pertains to Carter Hutton, and the distinct drop-off in performance he’s experienced compared to last season (which even then was a tick below-average). As he continues to struggle in relief of Linus Ullmark at the NHL level, supporters of the blue-and-gold have started contemplating whether Johansson or Hammond might be better options.
While waiving, or attempting to trade Hutton and subsequently promoting one of the two aforementioned Rochester netminders may sound palatable at face value, there are several factors at play here. Perhaps the most important consideration pertains to the NHL-caliber, veteran defense that currently exists in Rochester right now. These types of goaltending performances at the AHL level were to be expected this season, given the team’s overall talent-level on the blue line.
Players like Lawrence Pilut, Casey Nelson, John Gilmour, and Zach Redmond have all spent considerable time in the big league throughout their respective careers. Obviously, this has played a role in Johansson and Hammond’s success. How much of an impact is up for debate.
Switching gears to the NHL, Hutton is on pace to post the worst save-percentage of his career with a .894 through 16 games. Analytically, his GSAx/60 rate of -.17 ranks near the middle of the pack among backup goaltenders in the NHL.
Some fans have pointed to the idea that the Sabres’ defense has performed better in front of Ullmark. There might be some merit to that argument, but it’s not as significant as some might believe. Both goalie’s GSAx numbers are extremely similar, while their base save-percentages are not (Ullmark currently holds a mark of .914).
When examining the shots-against heat maps for when each of them is on the ice, the defensive performance disparity isn’t particularly obvious. While the Sabres are allowing a slightly higher concentration of high-danger opportunities in front of Hutton, the overall unblocked shot attempts-against is almost exactly the same for both netminders.
At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that Hutton has taken a step back, but it might be premature for a demotion. Analytically, things aren’t as bad as they seem (though they are still pretty bad).
One intangible factor that he has going for him is what he means to the Sabres’ locker room. Ralph Krueger has mentioned his leadership acumen (and what his presence has meant to Ullmark’s development) more than once. Veteran mentorship is clearly very important to this regime. With that in mind, it would be a surprise to see Hutton on such a short leash.
For fun however, let’s assume that the Sabres did decide to make a change and send Hutton out in one way or another. With one more year remaining on the three-year, $2.75 million AAV free-agent contract he signed in July of 2018, Hutton might be difficult to move via trade. While his cap hit is quite manageable, there may not be much of a market (if any) for a backup netminder who has underwhelmed for most of the season.
Even if Jason Botterill did manage to move him out, it would of course, leave a hole in Rochester. This would require promoting Luukkonen to the AHL, something that the organization might not be ready to do at this time. The 20-year-old has been relatively dominant with the Cyclones (.924 save-percentage in 15 games so far) since returning from offseason hip surgery, but the front office has made it pretty clear that they’re taking things slowly with his developmental track. As mentioned above, the Amerks’ defensive situation could perhaps make this option more appealing.
While Hutton’s job is probably safe for the time being, this situation will be worth monitoring for the remainder of the season. Perhaps a team in desperate need for a veteran backup comes calling at the trade deadline. If not, the Sabres might be wise to test a young player like Johansson down the stretch at the NHL level, to see whether or not he’d provide an upgrade behind Ullmark for 2020-21.
*Don Stevens’ interview with Seamus Kotyk was transcribed and provided by Keith Wozniak of Letsgoamerks.com
*Advanced statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
*GSAx Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey