Sabres goalies playing well amid defensive improvements

The Sabres’ netminders have performed well this season, thanks in large part to the team’s new approach on the blue line

Leading up to the start of the 2019-20 season, fans of the Buffalo Sabres agreed that in order to experience meaningful progress, the team would need to show significant improvement between the pipes (among several other things). Through the first 10 games of the season, the Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark tandem has shown marked statistical improvement (Hutton in particular, but we’ll get to that in a moment) from last season.

In terms of both base, and advanced statistics, they’ve so far out-performed the 2018-19 versions of themselves. That said, a lot of their early success has to do with Ralph Krueger’s new system, which has done a nice job of limiting high-danger opportunities, this season.

We’ll start by looking at where, and in what concentration, the shots against both Hutton and Ullmark are coming from. During the 2018-19 campaign, the Sabres’ defensive corps was... well, bad. Not only did they allow a higher-than-average rate of shots per-60 with both of their goalies, but a heavy concentration of those opportunities-against were in prime scoring areas.

While this isn’t really news to anyone, it does help explain their pedestrian save-percentages from last season. This isn’t to say that the defense was totally to blame, as both players posted sub-par GSAx metrics as well (Ullmark in particular), but the team’s general ineptitude on the blue line certainly didn’t help matters.

Fast-forward to 2019-20, and Krueger has his blue line performing at a level that finally matches their pay scale. Not only are they doing a better job of limiting high-danger chances, but their newfound ability to exit the zone and subsequently limit their opponent’s sustained zone time, has been a breath of fresh air.

Last season, under Phil Housley, the defensive group had a tendency to collapse in on themselves, presumably to try and take away cross-ice passes deep in the zone. Conversely, Krueger’s approach seems to be more interested in pressuring the puck and orchestrating timely exits (except when the team has a late lead, but that’s a topic for another time).

Jason Botterill deserves a tip of the hat as well for pursuing players like Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju in the offseason. Neither one of these assets came at a particularly high cost on the trade market, and both of them have made an immediate positive impact. The general manager’s recognition of the fact that his club was devoid of capable puck-movers (not named Rasmus Dahlin), has given his new coach the tools required to engineer a competent defensive scheme in today’s NHL.

As evidenced by the above charts, the team is currently playing their best defensive hockey in front of Hutton. Currently, the overall shot-delta per-60 is at 13 and while they’ve kept the front of the net relatively clear for both netminders, they’ve much done it to a greater extent in front of Hutton.

With Ullmark between the pipes, the Sabres are allowing 7.32 high-danger chances per-60, which ranks 34th among goalies with at least 90 minutes played this season. For Hutton, that number is 5.89 under the same criteria.

In looking at their own individual performances, both goalies are displaying a marked improvement on their own, beyond the defensive renovations that have taken place in front of them. Hutton currently holds a save-percentage of .943 (a vast uptick from the .908 mark he posted last season). He also leads the NHL with a 6-0-0 record. Through four games, Ullmark currently stands at .913, which again, repents an improvement (albeit somewhat modest) from his rookie campaign.

From an analytics standpoint, the numbers confirm what we’ve already divulged from the heat maps above. Hutton has played under less difficult circumstances, however he is generating results that match his workload. Ullmark on the other hand, has certainly had more dangerous situations to deal with, but his adjusted saves above-average aren’t quite where they need to be at this point.

Their respective high-danger save-percentages add another layer to the story. Hutton’s mark of .897 is good for 10th in the NHL. Ullmark’s rate of .727 (54th in the NHL) is significantly less impressive, compounding on the issue that the Sabres are allowing a higher rate of these opportunities while he’s in net.

While Hutton currently sits one-hundredth of a percent below the league leaders in save percentage (a two-way tie between Tuukka Rask and Darcy Kuemper at .944), his adjusted GSAx currently sits fifth in the NHL among starting goaltenders. That’s still fantastic, and this is in no way meant to take anything away from his impressive numbers so far, but his base numbers to this point are perhaps a tad inflated.

When compared to the same metric from last season, his uptick in performance is all the more evident. The graphs below outline the 2019-20 season (to date) and the 2018-19 campaign, respectively.

In Ullmark’s case, the performance delta is undeniably significant. While that statement has a lot more to do with how bad he was in 2018-19, versus how good he’s been this year, he is no longer hovering among the worst goalies in the league, statistically. Further growth needs to take place if he plans on being part of the Sabres’ long-term plans, but he’s making progress.

One of the biggest questions from Sabres fans pertains to sustainability. After watching the team squander a 10-game winning-streak and plummet to the bottom of the standings last season, that is a fair question to ponder. While nobody can predict the future, when you consider the performance of the defensemen in front of them, there is currently no reason to believe that Hutton and Ullmark cannot maintain their current pace.

There’s no fools gold in these metrics. Both men are playing at a level that is at least consistent with the situational circumstances that they’ve been saddled with. This isn’t puck luck, folks. What we’re seeing appears to be the real deal.

Goaltender metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

GSAx Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey

Shot Heat Maps courtesy of Hockeyviz

*Shot-distance metrics from the first five games of the season we’re found to have flaws. The issue had been corrected after that point.