It’s been a bit of an up-and-down year for Buffalo Sabres goaltender, Linus Ullmark. In his first full season of NHL action, the 25-year-old netminder has, at times, made a compelling case to become the team’s unquestioned starter. Free-agent acquisition Carter Hutton’s semi-recent struggles have certainly contributed to the increased calls for Phil Housley to roll with Ullmark as the top man between the pipes for the remainder of the season. That being said, Ulmark has dealt with consistency issues of his own in 2018-19.
With a contract extension set to inevitably take place this summer, given what we’ve seen this year (paired with comparable extensions from around the league), it’s time to analyze just how much salary and term he will command.
Through the first two months of the season, both netminders were playing quite well. In primarily a reserve role to start the 2018-19 campaign, Ullmark posted a save-percentage of .930 or better in six of his first eight starts. Since that point (the beginning of December), he has been wildly inconsistent. As of right now, from a base statistical standpoint, his current mark of .910 ranks him 26th in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 20 starts. Not great.
The analytics paint a similar picture. His current GSAA of 1.29 is also good for 25th in the league under the same criteria. What is a bit concerning (from a goaltending perspective) is the fact he’s not facing a very high rate of difficult shots. According to NaturalStatTrick, 22 other goalies have dealt with a closer average shot distance this season.
What’s even more interesting is the fact that his high-danger save-percentage of .844 ranks 19th in the league (under the aforementioned criteria). According to the available data, what we’re seeing from him is a better-than-average rate of high-danger saves, but also a below-average rate of success facing shots from lower-danger areas. This helps explain his abysmal GSAx (goals saved above expectation) mark of -8.64, as shown in the chart below from Charting Hockey. While he has been pretty good in high-danger situations, he simply hasn’t faced them with enough frequency this season to help bring his GSAx out of the negatives.
Leading up to the 2018-19 season, concerns surrounding Ullmark’s viability as the team’s starter focused on a perceived lack of consistency from his time in Rochester. As can be expected from a goaltender in his first full year of NHL action, those issues have followed him to the big league. On six separate occasions this season he has followed up a .910 or better performance with a save-percentage of .850 or worse the following game.
With all of the statistics in mind, let’s talk contract. A solid possibility still exists that Ullmark could still become a viable, long-term starter in Buffalo. As we know, goalies tend to take longer to develop. That being said, it’s far from guaranteed that he’ll eventually shake-off his consistency troubles. Nothing he has done this season would justify anything more than a short-term deal, and that was to be expected.
Looking at a few recent extensions for netminders in a similar situation, assessing his next contract is relatively straightforward.
The first example we’ll look at is Casey DeSmith of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Through two seasons of NHL action, the 27-year-old has appeared in 48 games, posting a save-percentage of .916. Last month, the Penguins signed him to a three-year extension with a cap hit of $1.25 million per season. Though Ullmark is two years younger, he has a similar body of work with 54 career appearances and a save-percentage of .913. Seems like a very nice starting point, right?
Not so fast.
NHL punchline and now former general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Chiarelli muddied the waters a bit last month when he negotiated a contract extension for goaltender, Mikko Koskinen. This inexplicable decision served as his final debacle before being shown the door. For those unfamiliar with the deal, Chiarelli inked Koskinen (a 30-year-old netminder with a career save-percentage of .908) to a three-year contract worth $13.5 million. His cap hit of $4.5 million through the 2021-22 season currently ranks him in the top-20 among goalies across the league.
Why Chiarelli would entertain a deal like this remains unclear. Since appearing in four games with the New York Islanders in 2010-11, Koskinen hadn’t cracked the NHL again until this season. Nothing pertaining to his body of work or his future potential justifies that price tag, but here we are.
Fortunately, the final comparable on our list sends this discussion back down to earth. Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators is perhaps the top-performer on our list. In 74 career appearances, the 23-year-old has posted a save-percentage of .921. Last summer, he signed a three-year extension worth $1.5 million per year.
The big difference in this situation is that Saros is the only player of the three who can be defined solely as a backup at this point in his career. Ullmark, DeSmith and Koskinen are all, at minimum, fringe-starters. Knowing this, it makes at least some sense that his cap hit is a bit lower than those with similar numbers, despite his excellent track record in Nashville.
With the precedents that have been set, it’s probably fair to project Ullmark’s next deal in the three-year, $2 million dollar AAV range. He still has a lot to prove, but the fact that Carter Hutton doesn’t even appear to be a short-term answer for the team moving forward, he gets a small bump as the projected starter next season. The term is actually perfect considering where Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stands in his development. By the time Ullmark’s new contract expires, Luukkonen could very well be ready to take the reins.