Get ‘em While They’re Hot!
GM Tim Murray was always up for a good quote back in the Tank Era. After the 2015 draft he admitted there was no science to drafting a goalie saying "Find the biggest Swede you can, draft him, then hope." While he said it offhandedly, you could tell by his low chuckle and faraway glance towards the rafters that he had given this matter some thought, that he meant what he said, and for a guy who was considered a talent evaluating guru, it was a seismic moment of honesty in an otherwise guarded position that’s shrouded in secrecy.
This was why trading for Lehner made sense. From the desk of GMTM, a man Sabres fans are quite content to roast, this was an undersung move. Magic beans (that turned out to be Colin White) for a proven, solid goalie? You make that trade all day.
When you think about it, for almost every cup run in history, there is a goaltender who got that team there. Hasek, Belfour, Roy, Fleury, Brodeur, Dryden, Vasilevskiy, Quick… The list could go back all the way to the Original Six Era. Goaltending is an incredibly valuable position, and getting a foundationally sound player installed there is key. Goalies play an extraordinary amount of time when compared to other positions and you can only have two of them rostered whereas you get to have at least 18 other players sharing time during any given game. That’s a way of saying, they’re worth the cost no matter what Jim Rutherford thinks.
...but the Sabres aren’t looking for that right now. They believe their system has one of these legends in the making, sure, but they also know these young players aren’t ready for the show just yet. That’s a big reason why UPL is still in Roch. The other reason is that the Sabres need a goalie who can keep them in games, not so much win them, but keep their players competitive and sharp and, above all, improving with every shift and everyone knows you can’t do that when surrendering 4 goals in the first period.
Dilemmas, New and Improved for 2021...
It’s no secret the Sabres organization is on the hunt for a goalie solution and since we’re still seeing #80 on the bench, that must mean that the evaluation is ongoing and more than likely international. All options are being explored and that’s a good thing. This time has been spent determining who out there is legit and can step right in, stop the bleeding and improve the lineup while keeping the farm system on track. Thinking about it from the Sabres development perspective, the Sabres aren’t willing to tie up big money and term for any position yet, so at the very least we have some parameters when getting into the organizational mindset, led by Kevyn Adams, a person whom we know from experience, will deliberately explore every option before making a decision he’s comfortable with.
Also, we have to be honest with ourselves: none of us saw this season coming after the Anderson and Dell signings. ...Tokarski playing so well that we feel obligated to invite him over for Thanksgiving? ...Anderson forgoing a Centrum Silver endorsement to show us what experience can do for a young team? And then… Things happened. Injuries revealed to us what a lack of depth in net can actually do, and it’s something that we can’t afford at this moment in time when situational development is crucial. First, we have to grudgingly admit how fortunate we were. We got extremely lucky that one goalie unretired to show our young guys how to battle and another goalie who was supposed to be spare parts became an integral half of a winning tandem. On top of that we got quality goaltending for 8 games, paying next to nothing for it. And now, despite our setback, we’re still getting respectable goaltending while the results haven’t been there. So it's kind of embarrassing to admit that we're upset from getting crappy goaltending when we expected crappy goaltending in the first place. I guess what I’m trying to say is Merry Christmas Sabres fans.
What to expect when you’re projecting…
Goalie stats can be misleading if not outright deceitful, making projections a gamble. We can get as high as we want with Devon Levi, but the truth is he could end up being another Ken Stabler and that’s just the projectional tip of the iceberg. The truth is the numbers aren’t everything when it comes to evaluating prospects, but they’re not nothing either. There’s a leap between the NCAA and the ECHL, ECHL to the AHL, AHL to the NHL (and don’t throw me off including the SHL or the KHL). The rubber meets the pads when the games become faster, the ice becomes smaller and the bad habits become coached (or not coached) out. As players reach different levels, their stats take a hit, but then improve as the season goes on. This is why many scouts approach the game in segments as what’s most important is the learning curve, not so much the overall yearly statistics.
So how do we, the armchair GM’s evaluate talent? Well, I’m just a guy with google, and segmented data isn’t available (‘cause I’m cheap) but here’s what I know:
Does the gold standard we call a GAA actually mean anything? The answer is, maybe? Sure? I guess, great, fine, ok? But also maybe not as much as you think? GAA is like a novel’s title, it gives an inclination on what you can reasonably expect for every 60 minutes of play, but the supporting stats in the body of work is what the actual story is about. And like any good story, there are twists and turns. So what are the things a stat-story can tell you?
1. If a goalie has matured, dropped off or refined his game since joining the league
To do this we simply scan the stat headers and look for deficiencies, improvements or similarities. For improvement, we're looking at minutes played and save percentage. With added workload we are most interested if a player can either maintain or increase performance. In ‘97-’98, Chris Osgood was hitting 3,000 minutes plus. That’s mule level, considering he refined his game (hitting the ice running) in ‘93-94 and while his SV % wasn’t exactly elite, it was in line with the NHL average. Sure it doesn’t scream improvement, but in ‘94 his SV% was downright sensational. As the goalie position evolved Oz returned to earth, but still DET got great value considering the exponentially increased usage. Judging by stats alone we can conclude Oz matured in ‘97-’04 and started to tail in ‘05.
2. If a goalie ready for more of a workload
We can tell if a goalie is ready for more when looking at GP, GS, SA and MIN. What we’re looking for is either comparable or better performance with increased usage. Mikka Kiprusoff backed up the great Evegeni Nabokov but after one statistically bad season, they cut bait, thinking they sold high for a second rounder. They were wrong. Kipper was trending upwards in GP, GS, SA and MIN and while the sexy stats weren’t there, it was the team that fell apart in front of him defensively. I mean, just looking at that year’s stats out of context, Vesa Toskala could’ve sold me his GEO for 10K and said Jagr threw up in it and I’d’ve driven away happy. Well, San Jose bought that GEO and the rest is history.
3. If a goalie is better with a heavier workload
Sometimes if a goalie doesn’t play many minutes he just isn’t as good as he’d be when in a rhythm. We can infer a goalie is more of a workhorse when they get better as they see more rubber. Look for fluctuations in SA, GAA and Minutes in light duty seasons versus heavier usage seasons. Every time Dwayne Roloson saw more than 1,000 shots and 2,800 minutes, his GAA never dropped below .907, and that’s in the twilight years of his long career. Dude deserves a statue in Simcoe, or at least a gym named after him.
4. If a goalie bonafide or just a guy in a good situation
Remember the backup goalie you had ready to be plucked and inserted as a starter? Let’s talk about that. If a backup goalie has similar stats to the starter, that speaks more to the team in front of him. When I determine a goaltender’s sitch, I primarily focus on goals against, save % and GS in direct comparison with the starter’s. Are those stats in line with the starter’s? Are they worse? Are they better? ...well if there’s disparity, it will tell you the truth
Take Carter Hutton in STL, for example. Looking exclusively at SV % and GAA in 16-17 you couldn’t tell him and Jake Allen apart! In 17-18 he was posting elite stats as a backup! ...but pump the brakes. Who comprised the defense in front of him? Pietrangelo, Parayko, Dunn, Edmunson, Bortuzzo, Gunnarsson, Bouwmeester… That’s an elite unit.
Now let’s put Hutts on the Sabres and see what happens… In order of his 3 seasonal appearances: Regression, Worse, and lastly (supposedly in a defense first system) Completely Exposed. In those seasons Ullmark posted SV %'s of .905, .915 and finally .917, respectively. That’s disparity. Now you can see why Adams wanted to keep him and played the long game, forgoing a return. I would’ve done it too.
A Quick Note on Fancy Stats
Fancy stats add another layer of story. How does this goalie play in a specific system? From where does he typically get beat? Can the defense I have on the ice, such as it is, minimize this goalie’s shortcomings? (I mean, does anyone else think that this recent rash of Ticker getting beat in tight speaks more to him or his team’s inability to clear the paint and help him out?)
This data is out there, and it’s what BUF scouts are pouring over right now. ...but since I don’t have access to that stuff, I can’t speak to it. *shakes fist at the cosmos*
Ok smart guy, are there any options out there?
It’s a fun exercise to put yourself in the GM’s shoes knowing what we know about Kevyn Adams. We know the Sabres are looking for a cost effective, term effective goalie that’ll bridge the gap until either A. the season ends or B. UPL arrives. So if I’m GMKA sending my scouts on a mission, I’m going to have them spend their valuable time (because the clock is ticking on the Sabres season) looking at low rent #1B’s, #2’s or hopelessly buried #3 goalies.
Before diving into hours of film, and assuming the first tick on the checklist is cost and term compliance, it’s time to examine the stat line. Only then does it become time for the eye test. Make no mistake, the analysts in the Sabres organization are making itineraries for the scouts as we speak. After the eye test, you can be sure a dossier is on the GM’s desk.
Tier One: The 1B-’s.
The 1B’s on short term are top priority, or should I say the B- group. The goalies to focus on will be the affordable ones, that is those who need to get their "Swagger Back" after a down season (be it this one or last). These are active roster goalies who have experience, the ability and maybe they're just snake bit or not in the right situation. In either case, they’re NHL proven, they’re hungry and they’re cheap. Maybe a fresh start with something to prove is all they need.
Bradon Holtby- Hard to imagine Dallas getting rid of Oettinger, but that has made Holtby expendable. Bradon’s body of work in DAL has been good, almost too good, and while it might solve the current Goaltender situation completely, his returning swagger is increasing his asking price by the day. Short term (1 year) and cheap (2 mil) he ticks all the boxes, pushes Ticker into an undisputed #2 and keeps the youth cadre in meaningful games. I’d be willing to trade for that, but not too much.
Alexander Georgiev- The phrase "Enigmatic Russian" gets thrown about with Georgiev. After the Eichel saga, I’m sure Drury will kindly return the favor with an exorbitant ask. He’s a young guy but, throughout my research, normal Goalie statistics tend to look like a collegiate interpretive dance of an EKG reading. Georgiev’s stats, however, look like a slow moving K-Mart cart pushed by the wind onto the 219. What’s going to happen? Are we going to test the brakes or hit the gas? 1 year left at 2.65 million? I’d hit the gas, but only at the right price.
Joonas Korpisalo- Everyone seems to think this guy is bonafide, and maybe the GMKA’s impressed by a resume that boasts "Burger Flipping Technician," too. The only kind thing I would say is this: the more vulcanized rubber Joonas sees, the better he does his job. That said, his body of work does not inspire confidence for his age and his age is what's going to keep the CBJ ask unreasonable.
Tier 2: The Backup Crowd
The second priority is the "Journeyman Option." It is, perhaps, the most unsexy thing the Sabres could do but it is the most sensible. Another Tokarski could very well stabilize the situation as well as transition to a #3 if/when Anderson returns. These solid if unspectacular goaltenders are life preservers that will keep you in games, but certainly won’t steal them for you. This goaltender is a known quantity and that’s why the cost can be a little difficult to stomach, but if you’re not expecting much, i.e. not playing as if you're allergic to airborne rubber (looking at you #80), relinquishing a couple magic beans in the form of high picks aren’t all that bad.
Anton Khudobin- His stats have fallen off a cliff, which to statisticians infers a (say with me like Oprah giving away something) OUTLIER YEEEEEAAAR (did you wave your hands too?). At 35, and never having been more than a "1B," I can infer that there aren’t many good days left for Anton in the NHL. He could probably be picked up at the Costco for a conditional 7th rounder and a Rusty Chain.
Keith Kincaid- Selling folks on Keith Kinkaid is like Craigslisting your 1991 pickup under the assurance that 140K of the 191,000 miles on the odometer are Highway and the missing tailgate has nothing to do with Buffalo winters. It is with that understanding I can argue Keith Kinkaid fits the definition of journeyman to a T. This pickup can keep you competitive and not allow 4 goals in the first. Plus, the guy’s been around the block and I trust him more than Dell. Still, having a sub .900 sv percentage with the Norris winner playing in front of you is concerning.
Jaroslav Halak- Jaro hasn’t been terrible. In fact, he's made a career of doing just that! In the 17-18 season he broke the 3.00 GAA for the first and only time in his 17 seasons in the chel. And on a bad Canucks team he keeps chugging along with decent numbers. Shouldn’t he be a 1B? Yeah, but there’s no way VAN is moving on from Demko, period. He’s a 2 and he’s ripe for the plucking because we all know Jim Benning is trying to douse his flaming dumpster of a roster in the Strait of Georgia. For Halak it’d be his 2nd stint here, but the first one didn’t really count, amirite?
Tier 3:The Please, please, please *fingers crossed*
Tertiary priority is taking a chance on "The Fliers." These goalies had it once, like lightning in a bottle, and though they hadn’t had it for a while, that's not to say they won't get it again. These goalies are the "Spare Parts" options that are available, inexpensive and willing to play backup as long as they get a chance. And if Dustin Tokarski is your starter until Anderson returns, then it makes sense to look for a #3 goalie. The good thing to know is that the Fliers are already on the floor of their production, but if they heat up you might have a nice win streak on your hands.
Jhonas Enroth- I know, whaaaat? Was Daren Puppa busy? Yes, Daren is an industrious man and the restraining order prevents me from calling him so there’s that too… In the SHL, Jhonas has quietly been one of the best goalies since leaving the show. Since 2017 the guy’s been holding down the fort.
David Rittich- C’mon, it’s Big Save Dave! For the bargain basement price of 1.25 million dollars you can have quite a steal with a guy who’s been over .900 every time he faces more than 300 shots. In Buffalo that could very well be by his, like 4th start.
Malcolm Subban- Drafted by the B’s in the first round, considered a luxury pick in 2012, Subban was supposed to be the chosen one, the heir apparent to Tuuk and to help you forget about that Tim Thomas guy, who retired in favor of his new career: hating everything and filling in for your crazy conspiracy theorist Uncle at family get togethers. Malcolm’s career hasn’t really materialized yet, but instead of sulking in mom’s basement, he has quietly pieced together a career that can be considered decent and we forget he’s 27.
Tier 4: The "Wait, what was Enroth’s number again?"
The final priority is exploring the non-NHL markets. This is the out of the box, certifiably grabbing at straws "who's that?" option. Goaltenders like Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka fit this bill: someone completely buried in a depth chart or plucked from out of deep right field Liiga. However, there are names out there who play against decent competition. With solid scouting and a system that lends to these goalies’s strengths, these players can potentially thrive, but such hope is ill placed. This is definitely a sink or swim category and Buffalo has recently stopped throwing players to the wolves so travelling this road is highly unlikely. Maybe extensive scouting’ll see something that we, literally, can’t.
Sandro Aeschliman- The starter for HC Davos is currently lighting it up and has been for 6 seasons. Poised, at age 26, English speaking and familiar with the North American game, the Swiss Aeschliman could be an answer.
Strauss Mann- A former Michigan keeper and Portillo’s mentor, after graduation his drive wouldn’t allow him to call it a career. Undrafted, he travelled to the SHL where he’s performing very well on a painfully average team. Strauss is young, American, professional enough to battle and ready to prove to everyone he’s a starter.
Christian Heljanko- Hey, I like Fins and so should you. Christian plays on a .500 team and has shown an ability to refine his game with every season. Hard to get down on this guy.
Christoffer Rifalk- After crushing it in the Allsvenskan (SHL’s AHL) while on losing teams, he graduated to the big league and proved he could not only contribute, but win games single handedly. Did I mention he elevates his game for playoffs and threw 4 shutters in 33 games? Yeah, he’s also 25 and his only criticism? He does too much. I’m ok with this.
There you have it folks, I’m out of ideas- how about you guys? How do you see us getting out of this jam?