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Goaltending could be the key to a Sabres turnaround

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If the Sabres want to make a jump in the standings next season, they’ll need an improvement in goal

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s the time of hockey calendar when you start to see season projections come out for teams and players. Most models have and will likely continue to have the Buffalo Sabres projected to finish the season at the bottom of the standings. They have nearly returned their entire roster from last season and didn’t add any players that would significantly improve their record based on the data.

If the Sabres are going to see a big jump in the standings and move into being a playoff contender next season, it may come down to two players that were on the roster last season. Those two are goaltenders Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. The path to a turnaround next season likely goes through that goaltending duo.

Rough Season

It’s rare that a team is able to overcome poor goaltending unless they have a lot of talent throughout the roster like the San Jose Sharks last season. The Sabres didn’t nearly have enough talent to overcome the poor goaltending they received for most of last season. Both Ullmark and Hutton started out hot, but it went off the rails quickly as the season went on. The numbers at the end of the year were not good for either goalie as you’ll see below via Evolving Hockey:

Hutton

  • GSAA (goals saved above average): -3.15 (51st)
  • GSAx (goals saved above expected): -12.12 (73rd)
  • WAR: 2.4 (30th)

Ullmark

  • GSAA: -5.74 (61st)
  • GSAx: -15.93 (77th)
  • WAR: -0.3 (66th)

The ranking you see next to each stat is where they rank among 83 goaltenders that played at least 100 minutes last season. It’s clear to see that both finished near the bottom of most goaltending statistics.

Last year the Sabres had one of the lowest combined goaltending wins above replacement (WAR) totals in the league. Evolving Hockey’s WAR model for goaltenders looks at a few different factors such as game state, expected goal value of the shot, strength state, shooter venue, shooter position, and back-to-backs.

The chart above indicates that the Sabres were 25th in the league in combined goalie WAR last season. It’s interesting to see that 11 of the top 16 clubs on that chart were playoff teams last season. Which begins to paint the picture of how important it is to get at least league average goaltending to have a realistic chance at being a playoff team.

Making the Jump

They weren’t a strong team defensively and their defensive strategy under Phil Housely left a lot to be desired during the 2018-19 season. However, they were average in the league in most defensive categories. At 5 on 5, they ranked 13th in expected goals against per 60 (2.28) and 18th in high-danger chances against per 60 last season.

Jason Botterill made some upgrades to the defense this summer and the hope is that the system will improve under new head coach Ralph Krueger. Even with those changes, the Sabres still need better play out of their goaltending tandem to have a realistic chance at any sort of standings jump. It’ll be difficult to go from a 76 point team to 96 next season and have a realistic chance at the playoffs.

Having said that, it has been done recently. In the last few years, we’ve seen a handful of teams make an unexpected jump in the standings. What coincides with that year-to-year jump is a drastic improvement in goaltending. The New York Islanders, Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes are three teams that made big year over year point increases.

You’ll see below the drastic changes that those three clubs had with their combined goaltending WAR in the season prior and the year they made the “jump” in the standings. I even included two clubs (Florida and Edmonton) that saw a decrease in expected point totals with goaltending numbers that went the opposite direction to drive home the point.

Conclusion

The goaltending isn’t something we spend a lot of time on when discussing the Sabres next season. We’ve known all along that Ullmark and Hutton would be back between the pipes in the 2019-20 season. The focus has been on improving the scoring and getting better players on the blue line. While those two areas are important for overall team success, the goaltenders may have the biggest impact on just how far the team can go.

They were winning games at the beginning of last season even though they were not playing their best hockey because of how well the goalies were playing. Once that safety net of solid goaltending went away, the Sabres started to head downhill quickly.

Goalies play the entire game and in every game state. They can have the biggest individual impact on the outcome of a game. If the Sabres can’t get rebound seasons from both Ullmark and Hutton, it’s likely they’ll find themselves at the bottom of the NHL standings once again.