Monday, April 11, 2016

A very revealing Sunday for a crowded goaltending situation

Reprinted with permission from

Yesterday was locker cleanout day for the 2015-16 edition of the Buffalo Sabres and a time where the media can get some final thoughts from the players for one last time this season.

While the media was getting their final interviews with the likes of Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Robin Lehner, among others, the Rochester Americans were in Cleveland finishing off a three-games-in-three-nights weekend. This was the second game of a home and home with the Lake Erie Monsters and the last meeting between the two clubs this season.

Prior to the game, three players who'd played for Buffalo in the season finale on Saturday were reassigned to Rochester--forwards Cole Schneider and Evan Rodrigues as well as rookie goaltender Linus Ullmark. Schneider and Rodrigues both played while Ullmark, who started the final game of Buffalo's season, did not dress.

There's been a logjam in Rochester ever since Lehner returned from injury in January. Lehner suffered a high ankle sprain in the second period of the first game of the season and was sidelined for 31 games. Back up Chad Johnson took the reigns as Buffalo's starter with Nathan Lieuwen serving as backup for the first two weeks of the season.

Johnson took advantage of the opportunity posting solid numbers as the Sabres de facto starter and continued to play very well not only when Lehner returned, but also later on when Lehner went down again which forced Johnson back into the starters role. He had career-highs in wins (22), games played (40), saves (1,168) and minutes played (2,592) this season and may have proved himself a viable No. 1 goalie somewhere. But probably not in Buffalo.

Sabres GM Tim Murray traded away a first round pick for the young Lehner who looks every bit the part of a bona fide No. 1 goalie with the caveat, "if he can stay healthy." This is the second season in a row that the 24 yr. old Lehner lost a big chunk of his season to injury. Last year a concussion sidelined him for the second-half of the season while the high-ankle sprain took away the first half of this season. After returning to the ice, he re-aggravated the ankle and had season-ending surgery on March 30th.

With so much in vested in Lehner including the first round pick and a year's worth of rehab, it seemed as if no matter what Johnson did, short of leading the team into an extended run in the playoffs, Lehner would be the starter as long as he was healthy. It might be more of an implied thing right now but when Johnson spoke with the gathered media on locker cleanout day yesterday, he didn't sound like a man who was counting on an opportunity to be a starter in Buffalo.

After saying that Buffalo had first crack at his services, and following it up with the question of what the future holds while mentioning he "hadn't looked too much into it," Johnson laid out his thought-process saying that he "wanted to be relied upon," (read, as a starter) and that he "hoped it was in Buffalo."

Johnson, like pretty much everyone associated with the Sabres, likes what the team did the year and the direction they were headed in. "This team can play and I hope I'm a part of that," he told the media. "But again, it's part of the business. If it comes down to going somewhere else to get an opportunity to be the starter, then it comes down to that. It's just a part of the game.

"[We'll] talk here (in Buffalo) first, then search."

There was a wall in the dressing room with Johnson writing all over it, and his departure this off-season would create a sizeable hole to fill, especially on a young team looking to make the playoffs next season. Johnson's been a true professional throughout his time in Buffalo and has proven himself to be an outstanding back-up. At 29 yrs. old he ain't getting any younger and with 101 NHL appearances on five different NHL teams, he's most certainly paid his dues.

Should he leave, his role will probably need to be filled by a veteran from outside the organization, which isn't a bad thing, because no goalie in the Sabres pipeline seems ready to crack the NHL even in a back-up role.

Tim Murray has been trying to let his goaltending situation in Rochester sort itself out, but no one has separated themselves from the pack this season. After Lieuwen got sent down, he compiled a 14-10-2 record, but has a 2.90 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. Ullmark is 10-14-0 with a 3.37 gaa and .888 sv. %. He's given up three or more goals in his last seven games and got pulled in two consecutive games after giving up a combined nine goals on 32 shots. He was relieved in those two games by Andrey "The Third Wheel" Makarov.

Unlike Ullmark and Lieuwen, Makarov was a free agent signing by the Sabres back in 2012 and like Lieuwen, he's a restricted free agent at year's end.

Makarov had a spectacular run at the end of the 2013-14 season that almost single-handedly propelled the Amerks to the playoffs that year. After losing his first three games, he went on a seven game winning streak that proved to be the difference as Rochester got into the playoffs before bowing out in a tough, five-game series.  Expectations were high for him the following season but he faltered going 16-18-3, albeit with three shutouts.

The now 22 yr. old ended up platooning with Lieuwen this season but through injury and numbers found himself without a game between January 8 and March 20, a span of 30 team games. He got back into the groove with the two relief appearances for Ullmark and earned a win and a no-decision, respectively. From there inconsistency, which has been a hallmark of his young career (and typical of young goalies,) ruled his next starts as he alternated between sub-par and brilliant.

Last night he was brilliant in turning away all 30 Lake Erie Monsters shots for his first shutout of the season. From early in the first period to the final two minutes of 6-on-5 with the Monsters goalie pulled, Makarov flashed the leather, kicked out his pads and fought through screens to keep the puck out of the net. It was an impressive, 1st-Star performance.

Amerks head coach Randy Cunneyworth agreed that Makarov was locked in last night, "very much so," he told me then sent an interesting tidbit my way. He said that Makarov "likes playing in a great venue like this, with 10,000 people in the stands and he rises to the occasion." The Monsters play at Quicken Loans Arena, home to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and the announced attendance for their playoff-bound team was 10,545.

The temperament of a goalie can be irregular in and of itself and when you have a young, inconsistent goalie like Makarov who's not only had his own ups and downs but has also been prey to the whims of an ever-changing goalie situation, how the situation affects them is anyone's guess. But after the game, and after acknowledging that he played a superb game, Makarov came off a bit fatalistic when he said, "Right now it's probably my last couple games here so I tried to end it on a good note." I asked whether he was referring to the season or not and he replied, "I just tried to play hard and simple, you never know what happens after."

The 6'1" 193 lb. Kazan, Russia native is 9-9-2 with a team-best 2.81 gaa and .916 sv%. Not great numbers by any stretch of the imagination. However, the defense has had a rough go of it this season, and those constitute solid numbers considering the difficulties the team has been having all season.

As of right now the goalie crease at the end of this season was very crowded. When Jason Kasdorf signed with the Sabres on March 12, Lehner was still playing and Chad Johnson as his backup. Over in Rochester, Ullmark was getting a majority of work with Lieuwen as backup and Makarov on the sidelines.

Grumblings from Makarov surfaced back in February that he wasn't thrilled with the situation he was in. The Hockey Writer's Allesandro Seren Rosso picked up on a article by Dmitry Groshev that highlighted Makarov's unhappiness.

During the Q&A Makarov told Groshev that he was happy with is performance at prospects camp and at training camp and couldn't understand why he was sent to the AHL. When asked if there was a lot of competition in Rochester Makarov said that there was and that he didn't play much before saying, "They don’t let me play, and therefore I don’t play. Why is that? If I knew the answer, I’d be happy to tell you."

And when it was mentioned that his contract would be running out this off season, Makarov told Groshev, "Let it run out… I can’t wait for it to happen!

"I'll respect the contract until it runs out."

The Q&A was translated from Russian, so there's a possibility that the exact translation might be off a bit, but after speaking with him last night, it sounds as if this will be his last season in Rochester.

Too bad. On the good side of his inconsistencies he's proven to be a wall and if what Cunneyworth was saying is true, that with a bigger the building, more people and a higher the intensity, the better he plays, Rochester and the Sabres organization may not have been the best for him. You can't discount the Memorial Cup he won with Saskatoon in 2013, or the best Memorial Cup Goalie award he won that year either. Nor can one deny that seven-game winning streak that propelled the Amerks into the playoff in 2014.

But if it's not in the cards for him to stick around, just like in Johnson's case, it's in the cards.

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