The same handful of negative trends have plagued the Buffalo Sabres all season. On top of simply not having enough scoring depth, their special teams units have been atrocious (primarily the penalty-kill, which could very well end up with the lowest success rate in franchise history). These shortcomings are obvious. Buffalo ranks third-last in the league in expected goals-for, and their league-worst penalty-kill unit hasn’t been remotely overshadowed by their 19th-ranked power-play unit.
Likely the third-most prominent critique of the Sabres’ 2019-20 campaign pertains to their overall performance between the pipes. While Linus Ullmark has avoided much of the criticism amid a solid campaign, Carter Hutton and Jonas Johansson’s respective performances drew a great deal of fan ire in relief.
We’ll preface this entire article with the fact that goaltender success on a year-over-year basis is virtual voodoo, and the data isn’t necessarily as straight-forward as it is for skaters. That being said, the numbers paint an interesting picture this season, not only in relation to the success (or lack thereof) each of the Sabres’ goaltenders have experienced, but how the team has played in front of each of them, respectively.
We’ll start with Ullmark, whose underlying numbers are about what you’d expect. All season long fans have agreed for the most part that the 26-year-old has performed about as anticipated for an average starting netminder. From a base statistical standpoint, his save-percentage of .915 ranks 12th among goalies who have dressed for at least 34 games (of which there are 31).
The advanced stats tell a similar story. While his GSAx of -5.0 might seem ugly on the surface, this has been a down year for goaltenders across the league. Of those who have appeared in at least 1,874 minutes of action (of which there are again, 31) Ullmark still ranks near the middle at 16. Only 10 have posted positive GSAx marks.
While the Sabres have done a better job this year at suppressing shots-against, Ullmark’s first full season as a starting goaltender is at the very least, satisfactory in context. While he still might not be the long-term answer between the pipes, he’s shown enough to warrant another campaign in the starter’s crease.
As for Hutton, there is no getting around it - this has been the worst season of his seven-year NHL career. While he certainly wasn’t great last season, most fans thought he was capable of serving as a rotational starter. Not only did he fail in that regard, but even in the context of backup service, he’s been one of the least successful goalies in the league.
In terms of GSAx, there are only six goaltenders in the league (who have skated for a minimum of 700 minutes) who have registered a lower GSAx/60 than his mark of -.473. Two of those players are on the same team (Minnesota Wild).
In the interest of fairness, I took a look at team performance when Hutton is the starter, versus when Ullmark is in net. For years, fans have dropped lines regarding team performance in front of certain goaltenders to serve as a defense of their performance (or vice-versa). Luckily, we now have to tools to either confirm or disprove those narratives.
Overall, it’s no secret that the Sabres are an improved team defensively in comparison to a season ago. On the year, they’ve allowed a league average ratio of unblocked shots-against, and have done a slightly better job of limiting high-danger opportunities against (though still not spectacular).
When Hutton is on the ice, the Buffalo defense allows three excess shots per-hour over their season average. That represents a seven-shot per-hour delta when compared to what they allow in front of Ullmark. On the chart above, you can see that the Sabres allow more expected goals-against in front of Hutton, but the disparity between that mark, and their respective GSAx numbers still paints an ugly picture for the 34-year-old.
When comparing their respective shot heatmaps, the aforementioned data findings are fortified. It’s pretty apparent that Hutton has faced a greater ratio of high-danger opportunities from the slot (as well as the previously mentioned uptick in overall unblocked shots), which has contributed in part to the team’s higher xGA when he’s playing.
So, is Carter Hutton that bad? Probably not as much as his most ardent critics believe, but he’s still pretty bad, and if the Sabres have an opportunity to upgrade the backup position this summer, they’d be wise to capitalize on it. While the easy answer would be to “trade him for a bag of pucks”, he has a year remaining on his current $2.75 million AAV contract.
That’s an expensive bag, and the Sabres might be hard-pressed to find a buyer.
For fun, I examined Johansson’s numbers as well. As expected, he fared quite poorly in an extremely small sample size, registering a -.622 GSAx/60 in six appearances. Hilariously, the Sabres defense got absolutely slaughtered in those games, doing the young man zero favors, but again, sample size.
In just 241 minutes of action, this data is virtually meaningless. Your eyes can tell you that Johansson simply isn’t ready for NHL responsibilities, but I was having fun doing research and figured, what the heck, let’s include it for fun.
One last narrative we need to address is the thought that with average goaltending, the Sabres would still be in the Eastern Conference playoff race. This idea is demonstrably false. Even if you reduce the team’s overall goals-allowed total by the amount of which all three netminders GSAx resulted in the negatives (20.87 goals-against above-expectation), their goal-differential would be the -1, and would amount to the 11th-best mark in the conference.
Obviously, if you strategically place those 21 goals in games where they only needed one more tally in order to gain an additional point in the standings (or more) you can reverse-engineer a desired outcome. Still, even with elite play in net, their ratio would probably only place them in the mix for third in the division, or battling it out for one of the wild card spots.
The Sabres goaltending wasn’t good enough this year, but there are 4-5 other factors that you could argue played a bigger role. It’s just one of several issues, not the defining characteristic of the team’s lack of success.