Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
With the Buffalo Sabres firmly in build-mode as they look to distance themselves even further from the ignominy of the 2014 and 2015 basement seasons, the solid foundation they laid using a huge return for "the core" moved the team towards respectability as they finished last season 23rd in the league with a 12-win/27-point year-over-year improvement . It took a coaching overhaul, two consecutive second-overall picks and a number of big moves involving many parts, but GM Tim Murray--who was also a part of a huge transition for the club when he was hired just over two years ago--got the things moving rather quickly as he added young-vets to the roster to hasten the rebuild.
Unfortunately, those players don't grow on trees and in order to acquire said vets, a bevy of draft picks and prospects were sent the other way to consummate the deals and because of it the prospect pool taking pretty good hit. But opportunity knocked and Murray answered with open arms.
He still has holes to fill on the big club and he also had a Rochester affiliate that finished near the bottom of the league, a direct indication as to how much of a hit the prospect pool took, but the cavalry will be headed to Rochester over the next couple of seasons and the Sabres are slated to have 21 draft picks in the next two years.
Today we begin to look at the remnants of a prospect pool that was ranked No. 1 overall by Hockey'sFuture a little over a year ago. And we begin in net with the top three goaltending prospects.
Linus Ullmark (ELC through 2016-17)
Ullmark came to North America last season after elective double-hip surgery in April. The prognosis was for a 6-8 month recovery but Ullmark hit the scene in Rochester on the opening night roster. With an injury to Sabres starter Robin Lehner, top Amerks goalie Nathan Lieuwen got the call to Buffalo and Ullmark took over starting goaltending duties in Rochester.
After starting out surprisingly strong Ullmark would get the call to Buffalo. He had a rough go of it in his first start surrendering four goals on 28 shots in a loss to New Jersey, but he came roaring back in his next two games, back-to-back starts against Philadelphia and the NY Islanders, respectively, allowing one goal in each game on 58 total shots for two victories.
Ullmark is a positional, butterfly goalie with a 6'4" 212 lb. frame that coaches love. He's very calm and poised in net something that surprised Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma as he often mentioned it in his post-game pressers. Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com has him ranked No. 7 overall in his prospect rankings (as of April, 2016)
Wrote Baker of Ullmark, "The big-bodied Swede clearly has the physical and mental tools become a competitive NHL netminder. Ullmark isn't classified as clumsy by any means, but Andrew Allen should view Ullmark as a very compelling project as he works to improve his body control and overall economy of movement.
"It's all about quickness and consistent puck tracking. The sky's the limit once Ullmark dials in this part of his portfolio. With Robin Lehner healthy, Ullmark having his development reset with another full year in Rochester should only pay off long term."
Ullmark's numbers took a serious dive last season when he returned to Rochester, but it shouldn't be cause for alarm. It's quite possible that because of his quicker than expected return to action, his hips weren't quite ready for a long season of intense competition. A full year in Rochester next year with stints as a call-up if need be should give us a pretty good indication of where he's at developmentally.
Cal Petersen (college Junior)
The Notre Dame standout is entering his junior season after an impressive sophomore season with the Irish. Petersen went 19-11-7-1 with a 2.20 GAA and .927 SV% in Hockey East, one of the--if not 'the'--toughest conferences in D-1 hockey. And he did so with a group of skaters in front of him featuring 15 underclassmen.
ND head coach Jeff Jackson told me last season that Petersen has been developing nicely in both technique and demeanor while maintaining his "ultra compete level." Jackson, a former goalie himself, had Petersen focusing on forgetting the goal he just let in and working on preventing another.
Petersen has been a favorite of Bakers since he was drafted in 2013 (159th overall) mainly because of his compete level and solid technique. He also likens Petersen to former Sabres goalie, Ryan Miller, while also noting some similarities to a young goalie who's presently in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Sabres fans clamoring for a Ryan Miller clone have their wish," wrote Baker. "The Notre Dame sophomore moves in the crease exactly like the former Michigan State Spartan and Olympic MVP, he processes the game to the point where you can see him thinking (hey, the mind controls the body), and he has the same ability to absorb pucks like the former Sabres starter, who by the way never started 50 consecutive games for Michigan State like Petersen has for Notre Dame. When not conjuring up images of Miller, Petersen also will show some Martin Jones-ish style at times."
Baker has Petersen ranked 6th in his overall April rankings, one slot ahead of Ullmark.
Jonas Johansson (unsigned prospect)
Johansson was plucked by the Sabres with the first pick in the third round (61st) at the 2014 NHL Draft, the first draft under Murray and his scouting department. At 6'4" 206 lbs. Johansson has the size that Murray covets in his goaltenders.
As a 20 yr. old relative project for the Sabres, Hockey'sFuture has him down a bit in the pecking order at No. 5 on the depth chart saying, "he's still fairly early in the development process and given his limited experience and exposure to elite competition, he is still a work in progress both in his technical skills and mental game," while also liking his style to fellow countryman Henrik Ludqvist.
Baker likes Johansson's foundation writing, "stylistically, he consistently drops to make butterfly saves like most goaltenders these days, using his size to take up a lot of net space. You notice that Johansson doesn't drop too early, which speaks to his high level of patience, or spend a lot of time on his knees, which speaks to his quickness and athleticism. He has good footwork for a bigger guy, and it keeps him in plays to thwart second chances that the opposition gets when the occasional rebound pops out of his control."
Catherine Silverman of Today's Slapshot reported that Johansson inked a one-year extension with Brynas IF Gavle next season and the plan has him to also be available for a second-tier club to get him as much playing time as possible. It will be at least one more year before he comes over to North America. The Sabres hold his rights for two more years giving them plenty of time for proper evaluation.
Others: Nathan Lieuwen (RFA,) Jason Kasdorf (RFA)
Overview: Goalie Andrey Makarov is a restricted free agent and will not be returning to the organization and as of right now it doesn't look like unrestricted free agent goalie Chad Johnson will return in a backup role. The Sabres still need a backup in Buffalo, which will be filled by either Lieuwen or another goalie. Ullmark is slated for Rochester and the team will probably re-sign Kasdorf as his back up.
After drafting a goalie four years straight from 2011-14 (all still in the system,) the Sabres went without drafting one last year. One would assume they'll grab at least one this year as they need to keep the system stocked. Of the 13 goalies drafted by Buffalo dating back to Ryan Miller in 1999 (5th round,) only Johansson and Jonas Enroth were taken in the third round or higher. Buffalo seems to like the fifth and sixth rounds for goalies as seven of them were picked there.
The overall consensus is that Buffalo definitely has talent manning the crease, but the big question remains, will any of them assert themselves as a bona fide No. 1 goalie of the future.
Kris Baker's April 2016 Prospect Rankings can be found by clicking here.