In most traditional hockey seasons, many given NHL teams have one “starting” goaltender, who plays a majority of the team’s games, and the back-up, who plays the rest or comes in to relieve him. This season, of course, is anything but traditional. NHL teams are allowed to carry up to three goaltenders, and the Buffalo Sabres are set to begin with a tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark.
Normally, we’d be asking: who is the starting goaltender this season? But instead, I’ll ask: is there even really such a thing this season? Does it even matter? (Short answer: I don’t think so.)
First, consider the format of this season. The Sabres (and all other teams, for that matter) will be playing a condensed season in a shorter timeframe. Buffalo will play 56 games in a span of 114 days, between January 14 and May 8, which equates to roughly a game every other day. Last season, the Sabres played 69 games in 158 days, a slightly longer timeframe which allowed games to be more spread out.
The Sabres have seven sets of back-to-back games this season, and lots of one-day breaks between games. They’ll be playing between three and four games on a weekly basis, and he season begins with four games in six days.
With all of that said, it seems likely that the team will utilize both goaltenders on a more regular basis. Rather than putting a majority of the workload on one netminder, it would make sense to give both more equal playing time so as not to tire them out. (This seems like a natural decision not just for the Sabres, but for most NHL teams.)
If the Sabres elect to carry three netminders, I could see the team swapping between Ullmark and Hutton on a regular basis and bringing in the third goaltender perhaps once a week, to ensure they get regular playing time, too.
Last season saw the Sabres utilize Ullmark and Hutton pretty much equally. Ullmark played 34 games, Hutton 31. (Jonas Johansson also played six games). Ullmark’s numbers were better, as he averaged 2.69 goals-against and a .915 save percentage, but we also know now about the vision issues Hutton was having that have since been corrected. (Read more in this piece from Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News.)
Something else to consider: both Ullmark and Hutton are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season. Hutton will earn $2.75 million in the final year of a three-year contract, while Ullmark earns $2.6 million in the deal signed back in October. The Sabres also don’t have a gigantic wealth of goaltenders for the future. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is signed through 2022 and is currently playing with TPS overseas at least through February 5. Dustin Tokarski (who will be playing with the Amerks) also has two years left on his contract, while Johansson is signed only through this season.
If this were a normal season, I’d say ride Ullmark a bit heavier. He’s younger and he’s arguably the future in net for the Sabres. Buffalo needs to see what he can do with a bigger workload, and he’s got to be able to step up to the challenge.
However, because this isn’t a normal season, everyone’s dealing with more these days as it is and the team will be playing this condensed schedule, it seems to make the most sense to utilize both netminders pretty much equally. Does it really matter if one goalie is the “starter” or not? We’re lucky to be having hockey at all, so let’s just make the best of what we’ve got to work with for the time being and figure it out as the season runs its course.