How important is goaltender Linus Ullmark to the Buffalo Sabres?
Well, we’re about to find out, as the Sabres are really going to be put to the test over the next few weeks. Following Thursday’s game against the Canadiens, it’s a loaded month of February for Buffalo. The Sabres have 14 games in 29 days in February.
Ullmark is currently expected to miss three to four weeks, which likely means he misses most or all of February. It’s going to be a big month for Buffalo, and even more of a challenge without Ullmark to support them in net.
Ullmark has been a huge part of the team this season. He’s started 33 of Buffalo’s 50 games, taking over much of the workload from Carter Hutton. In his time this season, Ullmark has accrued a 16-14-3 record, made over 1,000 saves and has a 2.72 GAA and .914 save percentage.
Now, with Ullmark sidelined for the foreseeable future, the Sabres need to make a major shift. Carter Hutton has been less than spectacular this season, and the team as a whole doesn’t play as strong in front of him as they do in front of Ullmark.
He’s appeared in only 18 games, but has a 3.31 GAA. That’s third-worst among goaltenders who have appeared in 15 or more games this season, behind only Jimmy Howard (4.12) and Laurent Brossoit (3.71).
Hutton’s .892 save percentage is fourth-worst in the league among goaltenders who have appeared in 15+ games this season, behind Brossoit & Howard (.883) and Martin Jones (.890).
On the offensive side of things, the Sabres actually don’t play much differently in front of Ullmark than they do Hutton. They’ve averaged 2.94 goals-for in games with Hutton in net, and 2.93 goals-for in games with Ullmark in net.
Defensively, they may or may not allow the other team more chances - someone more statistically-minded than myself can chime in here - but the fact is this: when they do allow the opponent chances on Hutton, it’s more likely that the other team is going to get a goal out of it.
So, if the Sabres elect to primarily go with Hutton in the upcoming weeks, they’ve got to change up their game plan, allow fewer shots and dangerous chances, and hope that Hutton steps up big. Their other option in net, of course, will be Jonas Johansson, who was recalled from the AHL’s Rochester Americans on Wednesday.
The 24-year-old Johansson is likely to get the opportunity to make his NHL debut in the coming weeks. This season is his third full season in North America, and the first where he’s poised to spend the entire season in the AHL. In years past, he’s largely played in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones.
Earlier this week, Johansson was in Ontario, California, representing the Amerks at the AHL All-Star Game as the sole Rochester representative. This season, he’s appeared in 20 games for the Amerks and recorded a 2.19 GAA and .925 save percentage.
Still, regardless of how good he’s been at the AHL level, the NHL level will undoubtedly provide a different challenge for Johansson. He's unproven at this level, but will get a big chance to showcase his skills over the next few weeks.
Going back to my initial question: how important is Linus Ullmark to the Sabres? Numbers and statistics aside, it’s a big loss for Buffalo to see Ullmark go out like he did late in Tuesday’s game. The team as a whole - and particularly its goaltending - will need to step up big in the next few weeks, starting with Thursday’s home tilt against the Canadiens.