Coming into the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres season, one of the biggest question marks was the status of the goaltending position.
Robin Lehner and Chad Jonson were the one-two tandem in the Sabres’ crease, with both goalies making their debuts in Buffalo.
In the season opener last Thursday, Lehner would go down in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return to the game.
Last season, with the Ottawa Senators, Lehner missed the final 27 games, including the playoffs with a concussion.
The Sabres acquired Lehner on the day of the 2015 NHL Draft, along with David Legwand, for a first round pick. The Sabres were confident that he would be healthy and ready for the 2015-16 season following his concussion.
After a “so-so” preseason, Lehner was the number one goalie on the depth chart heading into Thursday’s opener. Now, Lehner will have to wait some time to see his next game in the Sabres’ blue and gold.
On Sunday, the Sabres had announced that Lehner would be out six to ten weeks with a high ankle sprain. That means that Lehner could miss anywhere from 18 to 32 games until he returns to the lineup.
That also means that Chad Johnson will not take over as the Sabres starter until further notice.
The Sabres acquired Johnson last season at the NHL Trade Deadline in a trade with the New York Islanders that sent Michal Neuvirth back to Long Island. Johnson was on the team, ready to make his season debut after the trade deadline, but sustained a lower-body injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
This preseason was not a great preseason for Johnson, and many questioned if he would be a stable backup in net for the Sabres. Now, Johnson must take the reigns as the starter and hold down the fort for a team that is poised to have a bounce back year from last season.
On Saturday, the Sabres also recalled goalie, Nathan Lieuwen from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League to backup Johnson.
So with Lehner out for up to two months, can the tandem of Johnson and Lieuwen get the job done for the Sabres?
In his six NHL season, Johnson has only one season in which he played in more than 20 games in a year. That year came in the 2013-14 season as the backup goaltender for the Boston Bruins. Johnson played in 27 games that year, starting 23 of those games, and went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .925 save-percentage as the backup to Tuukka Rask.
His season earned him a two-year contract worth $2.6 million with the Islanders to back up starter, Jaroslav Halak. Last season in 19 games played, 17 of those starting, Johnson struggled posting a 3.08 goals-against average and a .889 save percentage.
All stats aside, Johnson has played relatively well in net for the Sabres. He has kept the team in games by making some timely saves, and has kept his composure when facing tough pressure situations.
Sounds familiar from last season, right?
One area of Johnson’s game that needs to improve is his movements in the crease. While Johnson’s lateral movements may be fine, it is how slow he is getting to his feet and getting back into position.
Johnson has been reliable in making the timely saves, however after the saves, it seems like it takes Johnson too long to get back into position and ready for the next play.
If Johnson continues to play the way he has coming in since Lehner’s injury, the Sabres should be fine for now. But what if Johnson begins to feel fatigued, or he breaks down physically and gets injured? Who waits behind Johnson for the opportunity to get some NHL action?
Nathan Lieuwen is currently the back-up for Johnson, who was recalled on Saturday after getting a win in his first game with the Rochester Americans since suffering a concussion back in December.
Lieuwen has had NHL experience with a short stint with the Sabres towards the end of the 2013-14 season. In seven games with the team, Lieuwen has a 1-4-0 record with a 2.98 goals-against average, and a .906 save-percentage while facing 191 shots.
The thing about Lieuwen people like is his size, standing tall at 6′ 5″ and taking up a big chunk of the net. His biggest concern is his health, as he has had multiple concussions in his career, and he is only 24.
If Lieuwen can stay healthy, the team seems to have faith in the young man’s capabilities in net. However, one more concussion could spell the end of his career.
In the American Hockey League with the Amerks, Andrey Makarov is an option for a call-up, however he has to work on his game.
Makarov was an undrafted free agent out of the Western Hockey League with the Saskatoon Blades. Makarov was signed by the Sabres in September of 2012 to an entry-level deal.
Makarov has a flashy glove hand, but has some control issues when it comes to rebounds and his movement in the crease. The time in Rochester will help Makarov develop his game further, but how much more time is the Sabres organization willing to give the 22-year old goalie.
The other goalie in Rochester right now that could be a help in net is highly-touted prospect, Linus Ullmark.
Ullmark, 22, was once the Swedish Hockey League’s Goalie of the Year at age 20. There has only been two other goaltenders in the history of the SHL to win that award at the age of 21 or younger, they are Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom, and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Last season in Sweden, Ullmark suffered a hip injury in January, which he dealt with until the end of the season. Once the season concluded, Ullmark underwent double hip surgery which would put him out for 4-6 months.
Ullmark was set to begin his first full season in North America, and came over ahead of schedule in his rehab. Ullmark made his first start of the season in Rochester on Saturday, posting 38 saves in a 2-1 win over the Utica Comets.
Ullmark is a goalie with the potential to become a starting goalie in the NHL. Standing tall at 6′ 4″ and 212-pounds, Ullmark takes up a lot of space in the net, while staying positionally sound throughout his game.
If there is a couple of things Ullmark can work on, now that he is in North America, is adjusting to the style of hockey and his rebound control.
What about the idea of acquiring a goalie from another team? Does Buffalo make a trade for a goalie?
In a conversation with Pierre LeBrun of TSN and ESPN.com, Sabres general manager Tim Murray was adamant in saying that he wants to give Johnson his chance in net. He said that trading for a goalie before using his assets in the farm system first would be “crazy.”
And as long as more injuries do not occur, the Sabres would have to make another roster move when Lehner comes back, whether it would be trading or waiving Johnson or moving the acquired goalie.
But what if more injuries occur? Would that force Murray’s hand in making a deal? Who would be out there for trade if the Sabres were looking to deal?
A few teams come up, who have extra goaltenders , that could be willing to deal a goaltender. Teams like the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, and Toronto Maple Leafs are teams that have a goalie that they would like to move by ways of a trade.
Jonas Hiller, Calgary, is the first name that comes up in trade discussions. Hiller, 33, is entering his ninth season in the NHL, second season with the Flames. Hiller has had prior success with the Anaheim Ducks, and has a career 2.49 goals-against average and a career .917 save-percentage in 380 career NHL games.
Hiller brings veteran stability in net, and would be a stable back-up in net once Lehner returns from injury. Hiller has one year remaining in his current deal in Calgary worth $4.5 million dollars.
In Colorado, the Avalanche could be willing to move one of two goaltenders in the system, whether it is Reto Berra or Calvin Pickard.
Berra, 28, is entering his third season in the NHL, and has been primarily a backup since coming into the league with the Flames. Berra has posted a career 14-22-4 record with a career 2.94 goals against average and a career .901 save-percentage in 50 career NHL games.
Berra is more of a risky move here he has yet to really prove himself as a reliable back-up goalie in the league. However, at the cost to acquire him, it may be worth it to give him a chance at a cheap price.
The other goalie in Colorado that could be available via trade is 23-year old, Calvin Pickard. Pickard has been in the Avalanche system for the past four years, and is looking for his first legitimate chance in the NHL. However, with Semyon Varlamov and Berra already in the NHL, Pickard may have to wait his turn once again.
In 16 NHL games last season, Pickard went 6-7-3 with a 2.35 goal-against average, but a .932 save-percentage as he faced 511 shots in those 16 games played.
If the Sabres want to acquire Pickard, the team may have to give up more than they want to acquire the young net-minder. Also, the Avalanche may not be ready to give up on Pickard, so a trade to get him may be difficult to pull off.
In Edmonton, it has been a crazy ride for goaltender, Ben Scrivens. After spending time in the Leafs and Los Angeles Kings organization, Scrivens has had a rough go of things with the Oilers. After the Oilers acquired Cam Talbot this offseason, and Anders Nilsson beat out Scrivens for the backup role, the 29-year old net-minder was waived and sent to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL.
Although, Murray has said that he has no interest in Scrivens right now. But if the Sabres are desperate, Scrivens may be a short-term solution until bodies are healthy enough to come back.
And finally in Toronto, the Maple Leafs are in the middle of a rebuildin which multiple players could be turned over for future assets before the end of the 2015-16 season. One of those assets in Toronto is goalie, James Reimer.
Reimer, 27, has already begun his sixth season with the Maple Leafs. For the past few seasons, Reimer has been in a battle with Jonathan Bernier for the starting role with the Leafs. Reimer believes he can be a starting goaltender in the NHL, but has not gotten the ice-time desired with the Leafs.
In his six seasons in Toronto, Reimer has gone 74-64-17 with a career 2.91 goals-against average and a career .912 save-percentage in 177 career games.
If the Sabres acquire Reimer, he would have a chance to make a name for himself in Buffalo and even contend for the starting job with Lehner.
The Sabres are confident that Lehner can be the guy in net to carry the load for the team when he is healthy. However, if he continues to be plagued by injuries, Murray may have to make some decisions on who will take the reigns in net. In the immediate future, unless injury occurs, it may be better to ride out Johnson as long as the team can. Years down the road, a guy like Ullmark could be the main guy in net to be the next future stud in the net.
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