The Buffalo Sabres have endured goaltender weaknesses for years. Ever since the team traded Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, and many fans and pundits would argue, ever since Dominik Hasek left Buffalo to play for the Detroit Red Wings, the team has struggled to find a franchise goaltender who can keep pucks consistently out of the net. Much of the time, the team’s offense also hasn’t helped matters.
After Miller’s departure, the Sabres promoted backup goalie Jhonas Enroth to starting goaltender. Enroth had a solid .911 and .903 save percentages in the 2013-14 and 14-15 seasons, respectively. His GAAs were 2.82 and 3.27. However, his only full season with the team, the tank year, GM Tim Murray set the team up to lose and the offense wasn’t scoring goals by design.
The next starting goalie, Robin Lehner, also had good save percentage and goals against stats during his three seasons with Buffalo. Unfortunately, offense was still bad and when Lehner suffered a panic attack during a game on March 29, 2018, the goalie left the ice and got drunk when he went home. This eventually led him to rehab; he later disclosed that he was an alcoholic and had never played a hockey season where he’d been sober.
Lehner’s replacement, Carter Hutton, had a save percentage that declined from .908, at the start of his first Sabres season, to .886 during his third and last season with Buffalo. Hutton’s goals against also increased from 3.0 to 3.47. His backup and replacement, Linus Ullmark, had a consistent SV% in the 900s and a 2.68 GAA in his six Sabres seasons. Ullmark, though, decided to go to Boston at the start of this hockey year.
Since Coach Don Granato’s tenure began, the Sabres have used eight goaltenders. Buffalo hadn’t planned on deploying him just yet, but a perfect storm of goaltending snafus thrust Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen into the starring role. Craig Anderson suffered an upper body injury early in the season and is still out. Dustin Tokarski went into COVID-19 protocol in early December and Aaron Dell didn’t do well in pregames or the regular season.
Luukkonen was inconsistent in Rochester, but when the Sabres brought him up, he helped break a seven-game losing streak in a game against the Winnipeg Jets. In his next start versus the Minnesota Wild, he prevailed in a shootout to give the team a 3-2 win. UPL’s solid netminding possibly inspired Malcolm Subban to go above and beyond and force an OT against Pittsburgh. So far this year, Luukkonen has enjoyed a 2-2-1 record, a 1.96 GAA, and a .939 SV%.
So how does UPL compare to the all-time Sabres goaltending greats in their freshman seasons?
Dominik Hasek in his inaugural start with Buffalo had a 3.15 GAA and an .896 SV%. Ryan Miler’s stats were a 2.63 GAA and a .902 SV% his Sabres rookie year. Hasek helped the Sabres get to the finals and Miller played with one of the best versions of the team to ever grace the ice.
It’s true that it’s only December and Luukonen has only played a few NHL games. Based on his performance, though, and with the Sabres’ offensive lines improving, Adams and Granato should think about keeping UPL in Buffalo instead of sending him back to the minors after this latest Covid pause ends.