Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
For vast majority of the Buffalo Sabres 50 games this season the net was manned by a duo that consisted of a career backup bordering on being a starter and a 22 yr. old who just came to North America.
Chad "I'm Not Ocho Cinco" Johnson, who's tour-stops as a backup include New York with both the Rangers and Islanders, Phoenix and Boston, was thrust into the starters role when designated No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner was felled by a high ankle sprain in the second period of the opening game. In his six NHL seasons Johnson played in no more than 27 games and totaled 56 games before being thrust into the starting role for the Sabres. At the All-Star break this season, he's already played in 29 games, 25 of them as a starter for Buffalo.
Rookie netminder Linus Ullmark was a 6th round pick (163rd-overall) for Buffalo in the 2012 NHL Draft. He worked is way up the ranks with MODO in his native Sweden playing his last two seasons in the Swedish Elite League. He won the Honken Trophy for Goalie of the Year in 2014 as a rookie.
After elective double-hip surgery last spring and rehabbing way ahead of schedule, Ullmark began this season with the Rochester Americans and was 1-2-0 with a 2.72 GAA and a .932 SV% before getting called up to Buffalo.
The duo were forced into a situation where there were nine new players on the ice plus a new coaching staff in place. The highly skilled offensive players that GM Tim Murray acquired were (and still are) a long ways away from being anything close to an offensive juggernaut (2.26 goals/game, 28th in the league) and their defense was suspect with the injury to No. 3/2 defenseman, Zach Bogosian.
Throughout all the change and a suspect 5-on-5 offense, Johnson and Ullmark put up respectable numbers. Heading into the All-Star break Johnson is 12-13-3 with a 2.45 GAA and a .917 SV% while Ullmark went 7-10-2 with 2.58 GAA and a .915 SV% before he was sent back down to Rochester upon Lehner's return.
Originally Lehner was expected to be out for 6-10 weeks with his high-ankle sprain but the organization gave him all the time he needed to recover. After nearly three months he was sent to Rochester on a conditioning assignment and returned to the net for Buffalo on January 15. Although his 1-3-0 record doesn't reflect it, Lehner has played very well for the Sabres since his return. In his last three games he's faced 35, 44, and 36 shots, respectively, and has allowed only two goals in each game (.948 SV%.) He won his first game as a Buffalo Sabre against his old team, the Ottawa Senators, in the last game before the All-Star break.
Murray gave up a first-round pick for Lehner (21st) at the 2015 NHL Draft and he was immediately placed at the top of the Sabres goalie depth-chart. At 6'5" 240 lbs. he has the size Murray covets in his goalies and for those watching since his return, he's got steely eyes and an intensity that can either help him or hurt him. He's a character, a unique individual that's still very young for the position. If the last three games are any indication, the Sabres will be opening things up when they return to action and will be relying on Lehner to keep them in it while the offense tries to get untracked.
With Lehner as the Sabres' No. 1 goalie, Johnson as his backup and Ullmark looking like the Amerks No. 1 goalie in Rochester, one of Andrey Makarov or Nathan Lieuwen might be on the outs.
Lieuwen was another 6th round pick of Buffalo (2011, 167th) and has been in goalie battles throughout his brief pro career. After tightening up his game during his 2nd pro season, one which included a seven-game stint with the Sabres, things began to unravel for him. Mid-way through last season he was sidelined by the lingering affects from a concussion he suffered in April of the previous year. He was never the same after that and has really been struggling to regain his form.
Makarov has a few things going against him under the Murray regime. He was a free agent signee of previous GM Darcy Regier and is on the smaller side coming in at 6'0" 193 lbs. Plus, if you believe that Murray has an aversion to Russians, that's another hurdle for Makarov to overcome. The good thing about Makarov is that he's only 22 yrs. old and has shown that he can carry a team. He's in the final year of his entry-level deal and where he ends up this season--as backup to Ullmark or off the Amerks--might give us a strong indication as to how the organization views him.
The cool part about the depth chart in goal is that they have fine prospects at every level and at every age. Lehner is only 24 yrs. old while Ullmark is 22, and they have a couple of real fine goalie prospects in the system who are in their very early 20's.
Notre Dame sophomore Cal Petersen is at the head of the prospect pool at this juncture and has been learning his craft as an underclassman in Hockey East, one of the toughest divisions of NCAA hockey. Petersen has been stellar for the Irish and for the third time this season was named Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week on Monday as he was riding a 12-game unbeaten streak (9-0-3.) His line for the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish so far this season: 14-5-7; 2.22 GAA; .926 SV%.
At 6'1" 182 lbs. Petersen has decent size, but it's his approach and his competitiveness that's appealing.
"When you look at him versus some of the other [goalies], said Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/Sabres.com to me in September, "he has real good structure to his game. Good movement and stick positioning and how he goes post to post. Everything is right where it needs to be.
And he's ultra-competitive."
Swedish goalie Jonas Johansson is sporting a 20-11-0 record with a 2.31 GAA and .919 SV% for Almtuna IS in Hockey Allsvenskan, junior circuit to the Swedish Elite League. A Murray draftee in 2014 (3rd round, 61st overall,) Johansson has the size at 6'4" 198 lbs. and at a mere 20 yrs. old the Sabres have plenty of time to allow for his development overseas before having to sign him to an entry-level deal.
The oldest of the prospects, and somewhat of a sleeper, is 23 yr. old Jason Kasdorf who was a part of the Tyler Myers/Evander Kane deal with Winnipeg. Kasdorf is another sixth-round pick (2011, 157th, WPG) who is in his final season at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The senior is 8-6-4 on the season with a 2.11 GAA and a .935 SV%, both tops amongst Sabres goalie prospects.
When Lehner went down in the first game of the season, rumors ran rampant that the Sabres were looking to immediately trade for a goaltender, but patience paid off. Bringing in a goalie to take on No. 1 responsibilities while Lehner recovered would only have jumbled things up between the pipes.
Looking ahead to next season, if things continue to progress the way they are, Lehner will be top-dog. If they re-sign Johnson, he'll be backup. Ullmark will either hone his craft in Rochester or Buffalo (dependent upon what happens with free agent Johnson) and the Sabres will need to decide who amongst Kasdorf, Makarov or Lieuwen will be in Rochester. Petersen will have at least one more season at Notre Dame while Johansson will be looking to make the jump to the Swedish Elite League.
It's a solid pipeline that stretches out nicely for the next few years.