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Buffalo’s Goaltending Quickly Sinking Promising Start

The Sabres current goaltending tandem is not cutting it - where does Buffalo go from here?

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres are quickly finding themselves at somewhat of a crossroads.

Offensively, the Sabres are averaging 2.86 goals per game, which is good enough to rank them 18th in the NHL.

While that number might be disappointing to some, perspective is always nice. Since the 2014-15 NHL season, the Buffalo Sabres have ranked dead last with 2.42 goals per game.

The complete 180 that Tage Thompson has made this season has been an absolute revelation. Thompson has already set career-highs in goals and points scored and Buffalo is only through 22 games.

Dylan Cozens being tasked with taking on opposing teams best lines and succeeding has been an absolute revelation. Cozens’ offense has started to come around as well, with six points (three goals, three assists) in his last five games.

We cannot forget Jeff Skinner either, who has already surpassed his 2020-21 goal and points total. In 22 games this season, Skinner has tallied 15 points (eight goals, seven assists). Last season, Skinner tallied 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 53 games.

Another unsung offensive hero has been Kyle Okposo. In 22 games, Okposo has tallied 15 points (six goals, nine assists). That surpasses last season’s point total for Okposo and also has Okposo eclipsing his 2019-20 point total of 19.

Watching the Sabres offense this season has been a true breath of fresh air.

The real crux of the Sabres subpar record has been and continues to be goaltending.

Heading into the 2021 NHL season, the Buffalo Sabres pushed their chips to the center of the table, as if they were at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A real shortsighted decision.

Unfortunately, as many expected, the goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski has reminded us that the house always wins.

Anderson, at the ripe age of 40 years old, has been the Sabres best goaltender with his 4-2-0 record, 2.49 GAA and .921 save percentage. Only issue here? Anderson is, and has been, “week-to-week” with an upper-body injury.

Anderson’s injury elevated Dustin Tokarski to the role of undisputed starting goaltender for an NHL franchise.

That is where the feelgood story screeches to a grind halt.

In 14 games (13 starts) this season, Tokarski has posted a 4-5-3 record with a 3.28 GAA and a .903 save percentage.

According to TopDownHockey, Tokarski ranks 30th out of 32 goaltenders with -0.3 goals saved above expected per 60 minutes.

Filling Tokarski’s backup role is goaltender Aaron Dell.

To say that Dell has been underwhelming would almost be a compliment at this point.

In five games (three starts), Dell has posted a 0-4-0 record with a 4.56 GAA and a .862 save percentage.

According to TopDownHockey, Dell ranks 78th of 83 qualifying goaltenders with a -6.1 goals saved above expected rate.

To briefly quote the world-famous musical group The Beatles, “(Help) you know I need someone, help!”

Help is precisely what the Buffalo Sabres need in goal, but the problem now is simple – where will that help come from?

Down on the farm, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has had quite the season and that unfortunately is not meant to be a compliment.

In 12 games played, Luukkonen has recorded a 6-6-0 record with a 3.42 GAA and .888 save percentage. Not start you want to see from a player who is supposed to be the top goaltending prospect in your organization. Safe to say that Luukkonen is not the answer right now.

After their decent start to the season, Buffalo has settled a little. With their loss against Seattle on Monday night, the Sabres wrapped a bow on the month of November with a 3-9-2 record.

It is clear the Sabres need some sort of vote of confidence from the front office before the season becomes completely lost.

The major issue for Buffalo is that options in goal appear extremely limited.

Free agency includes a 35-year-old Devan Dubnyk, who posted a 3.20 GAA and .895 save percentage in 22 games between San Jose and Colorado last season, and a 34-year-old Tuukka Rask, who is coming off of offseason hip surgery.

Rask also appears to be a lock to re-sign with the Boston Bruins, despite their current tandem in goal of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark.

Safe to say that free agency would be a bust.

Around the league, with the season still being so young, the trade targets have yet to blossom.

Subsequently, a deep dive into AHL rosters is a must and a hat tip to Chris Ostrander of Two In The Box is necessary.

In a recent piece, Chris points out a few AHL options that might warrant a longer look at.

The Rockford IceHogs employ two former NHL goaltenders in Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban.

Delia, with 24 career NHL games under his belt, has posted a 2.85 GAA and .902 save percentage in 3 AHL games played this season.

Subban, with 82 career NHL games under his belt, has posted a 3.97 GAA and .883 save percentage in 4 AHL games played this season.

While both goaltenders provide some sort of larger ceiling judging on their past performances, looking at those stats are certainly equivalent to holiday window shopping. Worth a risk but highly unlikely Buffalo sees either of these goaltenders fitting into future plans.

Another AHL squad with two goaltenders with some sort of NHL pedigree is the Hershey Bears.

The main reason the Washington Capitals might be a decent trade partner simply because they currently have two young goaltenders at the NHL level in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek that are blocking Copley / Fucale, barring injury.

Pheonix Copley, with 29 career NHL games under his belt, has posted a 3.40 GAA and .874 save percentage in 9 AHL games played this season.

Zach Fucale, with 1 NHL game under his belt, has posted a 2.63 GAA and .898 save percentage in 7 AHL games played this season.

Certainly, stretching the “some sort of NHL pedigree” on this one but let us have this one.

Zach Fucale is an interesting idea simply because of his potential. Fucale was a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, expected to be the next Carey Price for the Montreal Canadiens.

After 203 minor league games between the AHL and the ECHL, Fucale was able to finally break through and make his NHL debut earlier this season.

The worry on Fucale is pointed out in Chris Ostrander’s article beautifully, “His (Fucale’s) NHL resume is lacking to the point where it’s hard to level with what he could offer the Sabres, even in the short term. Save for 11 games in Hershey last year, his AHL numbers aren’t even that impressive, let alone any sort of resume at a higher level.”

While Fucale might be worth a look if the price is right, can he provide any sort of relief from the current tandem of Tokarski / Dell?

With how poor the goaltending has been, even league-average goaltending would be an immense pump for a struggling backend. A simple vote of confidence from the Sabres front office could speak volumes to this young, developing team.