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Who is the Next Sabres’ Franchise Goaltender?

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What is the long-term solution for the Sabres in net?

Buffalo Sabres v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Dominik Hasek. Ryan Miller. [insert blank space here]

One thing the Buffalo Sabres have lacked since February 2014 is a franchise goaltender. Ever since Ryan Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues on that fateful day, the Sabres haven’t found that long-term, steady presence in net, and it’s been sorely missed.

Miller essentially stepped into that position when Hasek left, but it’s been a tumultuous few years since his own departure. Since Miller joined the Sabres in 2002, 26 different goaltenders have skated in at least one regular-season game for the team. Naturally, the majority of those games were Miller’s, a whopping 540 games. No other goaltender has even played 200 for the team in that stretch. That period of stability has been over for a while.

Miller was traded to the Blues on February 28, 2014. Since he left, eighteen different goaltenders have played for the Sabres, and none for too long. Here’s the list, sorted by number of games played:

  • Robin Lehner (133)
  • Linus Ullmark (117)
  • Carter Hutton (94)
  • Chad Johnson (81)
  • Jhonas Enroth (44)
  • Michal Neuvirth (29)
  • Anders Nilsson (26)
  • Anders Lindback (16)
  • Dustin Tokarski (13)
  • Matt Hackett (13)
  • Jonas Johansson (13)
  • Nathan Lieuwen (7)
  • Michael Houser (4)
  • Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (4)
  • Connor Knapp (2)
  • Jason Kasdorf (1)
  • Adam Wilcox (1)
  • Andrey Makarov (1)

While a franchise goaltender isn’t an absolute requirement for success, it doesn’t hurt to have one. Think about Marc-Andre Fleury with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carey Price with the Montreal Canadiens, and the now-retired Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers. They were all cornerstone pieces for their respective teams, and those teams are now trying to find their next big netminder.

Look at the recent Stanley Cup champions. Andrei Vasilevskiy was a key component of Tampa’s consecutive wins. Braden Holtby was *the guy* for Washington. Fleury, along with Matt Murray, were the tandem for Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick, etc. They may not all be franchise goaltenders, but at the very least, they’re long-term key pieces.

There is no world where it’s ideal for a team to have as much turnover in its goaltending as the Sabres have had over recent years. Cycling players through so quickly, with some barely registering as a blip on the NHL radar and others floating onto another team rapidly, is not a sustainable method for success in the long run.

The Sabres, meanwhile, have been skating by (pun fully intended) with what I can only describe as temporary solutions, with no-long term option in sight. This upcoming season is no different, at least not right off the bat. Craig Anderson is already 40 years old and was headed for retirement. Aaron Dell is younger, just 32, but doesn’t look like a full-time NHL starter. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski are the others in the pipeline, but neither will make a full-time jump just yet.

So the question is: when’s the next time we’ll see a real, long-term option for the Sabres in goal? Is UPL the future? Could he be developed and stick around to fill that position? (A few years ago, I would’ve said that could be Linus Ullmark and well, look where we are.) Or is there another goaltender out there who could come in and do the job?