Evaluating the Sabres goaltending tandem

Both Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton struggled in the second half of the season

As the Buffalo Sabres tumbled down the standings in the second half of the season, so did it’s goaltending. After a strong start at the beginning of the season, both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark fought the puck over the last three months down the stretch.

The duo is likely locked in as the goaltending tandem next. Ullmark just completed his rookie season and Hutton will only be in year two of a three-year contract.

For the most part, goaltending can be hot and cold. It can vary from year to year and it can even swing drastically within a season (as we’ve seen).

Now, the question is how concerned should we be with the goaltending situation moving forward?

Is it plausible that they bounce back next season?

Of course.

Ullmark could have learned some lessons on his first full season and Hutton can figure out how to adjust to a club that allows more scoring chances.

Is it possible that the team in front of them played a factor in how the season unfolded in goal?

Again, possible.

Let’s see if we can get some answers by digging into the numbers.

Up and Down Season

Of goaltenders to play at least 100 minutes this season Ullmark finished with the eighth lowest goals saved above expected (-15.93) and Hutton finished 11th worst (-12.12) in that same category according to Evolving Hockey.

Hutton finished tied for 34th in the league in save percentage (.908) among goalies with at least 21 games played and Ullmark finished tied for 41st (.905).

Neither finished that well in terms of high-danger save percentage compared to the league. Ullmark was the better of the two finishing 16th in the league (.845) among goalkeepers that have played at least 1,000 minutes.

Hutton, on the other hand, finished 42nd (.807). Last season Hutton was ranked 23rd in HDSV percentage. Another sign of how things can swing drastically with goaltending performance.

It’s safe to say that numbers back up that both goaltenders had a less than ideal season overall. They contributed to the Sabres collapse with how poorly they performed from December on.

Below you’ll see how the dip in GSAx and performance coincided with the Sabres season going in the tank around the time the calendar flipped to 2019.

While it’s good that we saw some rebound from Hutton at the end of the season, it’s concerning how Ullmark nosedived after a solid first two months.

Team Impact

All the struggles are not on the goaltending. It’s only a small piece to a bigger problem. The Sabres allowed the 10th most high-danger shots against per 60 minutes in all situations (8.48) and 13th most at 5 on 5 (8.19) according to Natural Stat Trick.

Combine that with the fact that they finished with the 13th lowest team HDSV% at 5 on 5 and 10th lowest in all situations.

You can start to get a picture of the problem here.

The Sabres 2.85 xGA per 60 was the 13th highest in the NHL. For what it’s worth they had the eighth worst xG differential per 60 in the entire league.

Having a club that gives up a high rate of quality scoring chances against and has two goaltenders that are unable to bail out their team, it’s a recipe for disaster.

On the flip side, the Sabres inability to score at a decent rate to help out their goaltenders leaves a small margin of error.

Moving Forward

From a team standpoint a few changes, including the coach, can quickly yield different results. The New York Islanders, for example, went from the second-highest xGA in all situations last season to the 12th best this season under new head coach Barry Trotz.

Improving the team defense system, as well as, changing out some defensemen on the roster should reduce the number of high-quality chances given up.

Individually, it’s not out of the question to expect a bounce-back season from either or both of the goaltenders.

A few netminders started out rough early in their career. Roberto Luongo, Connor Hellebuyck, and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few that had struggles early in their career that rebounded to have success as a starter.

Hutton is a veteran goaltender that admitted he was unprepared to handle the number of high-danger chances against that he saw this season. Coming from the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues he wasn’t used to facing that many opportunities against.

He showed an ability to rebound in the final month in the season. That could give you some hope about his ability to maintain respectable numbers next season.

Hutton was expected to start to at the very least split time next season, but he may have to handle more of the load again if Ullmark can’t show signs of progress.

At the end of the day, neither goaltender played that well for the most part of this season. The team in front of them didn’t help their cause offensively or defensively.

On the positive side of things, it’s not out of the question to see a change in both areas next season. A new coach could install a better system, with an improved roster.

Ullmark could continue to develop into the player the Sabres are hoping for. Goaltenders develop at a different pace than skaters and some patience is required.

If both struggle again early next season we could see a lot of people begin to talk about how quickly the Sabres can get Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen ready to play some games in the NHL. A situation that won’t be good for anyone.