Buffalo Sabres season preview: Goaltending
The biggest question mark for the Buffalo Sabres this season will undoubtedly be in the crease.
The Buffalo Sabres have had a running string of goaltenders keeping the crease warm ever since they traded American Hero Ryan Miller away in 2014. Names like Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Lieuwen, Anders Lindback, Matt Hackett, and the immortal Ryan Vinz have graced the Sabres stat sheet over the last three years, but for various reasons, none are still around to attempt to grab the open crease the Sabres have this season.
Sabres GM Tim Murray targeted one man for the job, trading away a first round pick to Ottawa this summer for Robin Lehner, who will enter the season as Buffalo's starting goaltender. But while the 24-year old netminder brings plenty of potential to the Sabres crease, his career has been filled with ups and downs.
Let's start by taking a look at the positives. At 6'5'', 240 lbs, Lehner has the large frame for a goaltender that Tim Murray craves deep within his bones, and Lehner also hails from Sweden, which seems to be thing with Murray and goaltenders. His first few seasons in the Senators organization showed a ton of promise; in the 2011-12 season, Lehner played in just five games, but posted a sparkling .935 save percentage as a call-up. He followed that up in 2012-13, appearing in 12 games and posted an even more sparkling .936 save percentage. Sounds great, right?
It did, until you get around to Lehner's last two seasons. In 2013-14, his first year starting the season in Ottawa, Lehner's save percentage dropped to a very pedestrian .913, despite seeing his workload increase to 36 games, and last year saw both of those numbers drop, to a below-average .905 in 25 games, eventually losing his starting job to both a concussion and the emergence of the Hamburglar.
The story of whether or not Lehner can regain the form that changed people's opinions of him from "nice prospect" to "potential franchise guy" will be one of the Sabres biggest stories this season. Tim Murray knows Lehner's strengths and weaknesses better than anybody thanks to their time together in Ottawa, and he's given the young Swede the keys to the Sabres crease for the time being.
Lehner has had a shaky preseason, to say the least, though he's still rounding himself back into shape after recovering from his concussion. The games don't start counting for real until Thursday, so in a few weeks we'll have a much more definitive idea of what Lehner could become than we do now, though with no real challenger ready in the Sabres system, it appears that, barring a complete implosion, Lehner will get the entire season to prove himself.
Behind Lehner is Chad Johnson, who has been the definition of "a warm body" over the past few seasons. Johnson showed plenty of promise as the backup in Boston, but couldn't cut it as a starter once he left the Bruins championship blueliners for those of the Islanders. The 28-year old posted a depressing .889 save percentage last season, and is firmly entrenched in the backup position for another year or two while other players like Linus Ullmark and Andrey Makarov make their way to the NHL.
A rocky preseason did little to reassure Sabres fans that the team has found their goalie of the future, and with no true challenger in net behind him, it will up to Robin Lehner to take the starting job and run with it. And if he stumbles along the way, well, a few 5-4 losses will still be way more fun to watch than anything we saw last year.