Decisions in the crease could be looming for Sabres
By Chris Ostrander
The Buffalo Sabres have plenty of depth at the goaltender position, having drafted a netminder in the previous three drafts. With the exit of Ryan Miller, prospects acquired by the Buffalo organization will have the opportunity to prove their worth.
Buffalo - April 6, 2014 - A number of moves made by Darcy Regier and Tim Murray were done to prepare the Sabres for life after Ryan Miller. One player that was acquired (Matt Hackett) may find himself pushed out of the Buffalo goaltending situation.
Regier’s drafting of Linus Ullmark and Cal Petersen in consecutive seasons along with the acquisitions of Hackett and Michal Neuvirth has bolstered Buffalo’s depth in the crease with an eye on the future. The Sabres have drafted a goaltender in each of the last three drafts and have eight goaltenders in various levels of the pipeline.
While Jhonas Enroth and Neuvirth are expected to carry the load into the 2014-15 season, the landscape behind them could be in for a change depending on the direction Murray wants to go. Both Enroth and Neuvirth have one more year left on their respective deals before reaching unrestricted free agency. Nathan Lieuwen has one more year until his entry level deal expires while both Matt Hackett and Connor Knapp hit restricted free agency this summer.
Andrey Makarov is the only signed goaltender with significant time on his deal; he doesn’t become a restricted until after the 2015-16 season. Cal Petersen and Linus Ullmark are both unsigned with Petersen a few years away as he prepares to head to Notre Dame and Ullmark creeping towards a contract with superb play in the SHL.
The situation for the big club is all but set. Enroth and Neuvirth will be Buffalo’s starters entering next season and it’s conceivable that they both receive extensions next summer as the rebuilding process continues. It’s the depth chart below them that could be due for a shake up.
Although Hackett entered this season as Rochester’s starter and the prohibitive number three in the organization, his play slipped and Lieuwen quickly took over starting duties. Coupled with his strong play during his recall and it’s safe to say that Lieuwen has significantly strengthened his resume moving forward. Hackett’s ugly season in Rochester is certainly one to forget but could potentially spell doom for his future with the Sabres. While a qualifying offer is a simple step to take for the organization, I wonder if Murray takes his time before submitting the offer.
Hackett’s regression has done him no favors in a situation that could have ultimately seen him earn serious consideration for a full time NHL role with the Sabres. Instead he’s starting to find himself on the outside looking in in an increasingly crowded crease. Lieuwen’s rise has a lot but solidified him as the number three man on the depth chart while Andrey Makarov has been strong in relief back in Rochester. While Makarov’s success has been in a very small number of games, it stands to reason that Makarov may have earned an extended look as the 2014-15 season looms. Should the Sabres want to give Makarov the opportunity to take the next step in his development with the Amerks, it might mean removing at least one of the goaltenders who fill the organizational depth chart.
It seems pretty obvious that Connor Knapp isn’t likely to grow into much more than an AHL netminder at this point and I’d be very surprised to see him offered anything more than a minor league contract. Knapp’s likely departure from the organization would trim one name from the eight-man unit and it would leave Hackett in a difficult position moving forward. While Ullmark isn’t likely to get a contract for at least one more year, the need to find quality minutes for Lieuwen and Makarov puts a pinch on the crease in Rochester. If Hackett is deemed to be the weak link, he may not be worth keeping around.
While qualifying Hackett is a no brainer simply for the convenience that a qualifying offer provides, is it conceivable that the better option for the organization’s development – particularly for Lieuwen and Makarov – is to let him go?
The smart decision would be to give him one final year to prove his worth. It would be simply to qualify him heading into 14-15 to provide 365 more days to make a final decision. That gives him the offseason to get right mentally and physically in order to prove he holds the potential that made him such a valuable commodity in the Pominville trade. Should he falter again next year it would most definitely spell the end of his time in Buffalo.
Regardless if Hackett manages to turn his play around next season, it would appear that Tim Murray does not see a long-term answer between the pipes with the players he has in the organization right now. It’s my belief that Linus Ullmark could be that player but he still needs to be under contract and playing in North America before a determination can be made.
Chris Ostrander is a 2008 graduate of John Carroll University where he played all four seasons with JCU's ACHA hockey team. After graduation Chris spent the 2008-09 season with the Buffalo Sabres organization working for the Sabres and Buffalo Bandits (indoor lacrosse) Public Relations department. After his time with the Sabres, Chris worked with NBC's hockey coverage for the 2010 Olympic games prior to his current role as the Public Relations Director for the American Collegiate Hockey Association. He runs the Sabres, Bills and Buffalo-centric blog Two in the Box. If you have questions or wish to contact Chris, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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