Sabres need improvement from goalie tandem in 2019-20

Will Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark bounce-back next season behind an improved defensive corps?

Last season, the respective performances of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton left something to be desired. Despite the fact that the Buffalo Sabres will likely feature the same tandem in 2019-20 (barring something unexpected), they’ll have a revamped supporting cast in front of them, defensively.

The improvements that Jason Botterill has made to the blue line in the past few months, are undeniable. Since April, he has added several positive impact contributors, particularly on the right side. While these acquisitions will likely help take some of the pressure off of the Sabres’ netminders, they too must show improvement if the team hopes to find itself in the playoff conversation next spring.

First, let’s take a look at the data from last season, as it pertains to the defense, and to what extent their shortcomings may have played a role in Ullmark and Hutton’s lackluster numbers.

In terms of blue line control, only Rasmus Dahlin was effective at both exiting the defensive zone, and interrupting opposing entries last year. Based on the same metrics during his time with the Anaheim Ducks in 2018-19, trade deadline acquisition, Brandon Montour also found himself in the “Good” quadrant (though it is important to mention that, when hemmed in his own zone, post-entry, his metrics are less impressive).

In Montour, and former Vegas Golden Knight, Colin Miller, the Sabres have added adept puck-movers who still have some shortcomings in their own zone (Montour more so than Miller). If Lawrence Pilut ends up as a top-six regular, he too fits that mold, as does Henri Jokiharju (who could very well be the most defensively capable of the aforementioned new arrivals, if not now, then perhaps in the near future).

Obviously, being able to move the puck up ice more effectively will have some positive impact on Hutton and Ullmark, but to what extent? Even if the Sabres’ defense improves their overall puck-control metrics, net-front defense is obviously still important. It remains to be seen whether or not this new group of dynamic puck-movers can also prove satisfactory in deep.

Moving onto the individual goaltending data from last year, it’s important to recognize the fact that on a year-to-year basis, goalie metrics have a tendency to be sporadic. We’ll start with Hutton, whose performance was ultimately below-average, but not terrible. On the surface, his underlying numbers don’t appear to separate themselves significantly from Ullmark’s, but contextually, he did play under more difficult circumstances.

The chart below shows excess shot-rates-against for both Hutton and Ullmark last season. As you can see, the Sabres’ defense relented more excess shots-against in front of Hutton, as well as a slightly higher concentration of chances in the slot.

Pair this with the fact that Hutton’s high-danger save percentage of .807 ranked 42nd among goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, and you can see the problem.  In fact, he faced an average of 10.86 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, which ranked 21st out of the 56 goalies who met the aforementioned TOI criteria.

His teammates will need to do a better job of limiting those opportunities next season. If they can reduce said rate from 2018-19, Hutton’s metrics on the mid-to-low-danger side of things are pretty in-line with the league average.

At this point in his career, it’s not like he is going to really grow as a player, but with the right defensive system in front of him, he could hit his current performance ceiling, which is likely similar to that of an average NHL starting netminder.

As for Ullmark, he experienced deficiencies in different areas of his game. While his high-danger save percentage was markedly better than Hutton’s at .845 (good for 15th among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played), he was well below-average when it came to stopping chances from further out. If you take high-danger chances out of the equation, his adjusted save-percentage of .942 ranked 48th on the list (though, it is important to consider how slim that deviation is from top-to-bottom). Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that only 16 other goalies faced more HDCA per-60 in 2018-19.

Based on the numbers, the “soft goal” narrative that followed Ullmark last season probably has some merit to it. The good news is that he is still developing. After all, 2018-19 was his first full year of NHL action. If he can find a way to be more consistent, he could bounce back nicely. The only concerning variable is that his downfall appears to have had a bit less to do with his supporting cast.

One thing we haven’t really touched on yet is situational context. Sure, the numbers we’ve seen so far are nice, but it’s important to gauge whether or not one of the Sabres’ goaltenders was forced to play under more difficult match-up circumstances. In looking at things from a xGA standpoint, the workloads are pretty comparable (though Hutton’s was marginally more difficult).

From a WAR standpoint (which factors in things like, expected goal value of a shot-faced, venue, whether the shooter’s team is winning/losing, shooter position, etc.) Hutton has the edge, posting a WAR of 2.4 versus Ullmark’s rate of -0.3, further indicating that, despite holding similar GSAx impacts (as shown below), Hutton was contextually more effective while being placed in more difficult circumstances.

It should be reiterated that goaltender performance is not nearly as straight-forward to predict in comparison to skater metrics. Still, last season’s data provides a detailed look at the areas where each player struggled. Some of it was based on individual shortcomings (more so in Ullmark’s case) and some of it had to do with a sub-par defenseive group (which allowed the fifth-most shots-against, and 13th-most high-danger chances-against in the NHL last year).

At the end of the day, the Sabres’ best hope between the pipes is for Ullmark to take the next step and show that he can be a viable starter in the league. If the same individual trends continue, Buffalo may be forced to lean on Hutton, who will turn 34 this season. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but as the only position group that is a near certainty to remain unchanged going into next season, their respective performances will be interesting to monitor, especially with so many new additions in front of them.

Goalie Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

GSAx and Blue Line Entry/Exit Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey

Shot Heat Maps courtesy of Evolving Hockey