With the NHL Draft lottery complete, the Buffalo Sabres know where their selections fall. As the draft order is known, Kevyn Adams and company likely have an idea about where draft prospects lie. What remains less clear, however, is how the team will address its other priorities.
The elephant in the room, in terms of question marks, is goaltending. If the situation in goal was confusing last offseason, I do not know what to say about the Sabres’ path forward. Surprisingly enough, 40 year old, Craig Anderson, could have been worse. Ukka Pekka Luokkonen showed positive signs prior to an injury. After that, the gap was wide. When the team endured almost every goaltender ill or injured, the Sabres really struggled. Fans and media, alike, wondered how far Buffalo would go for a warm body in net.
As the NHL offseason approaches, the brass will be challenged with finding better short term solutions. Otherwise, depth in the crease will plummet the Sabres once again.
As both Erik Portillo and Devon Levi chose to return to their alma maters, Don Granato must wait to try out the two young prospects at the pro level. As a result, the Sabres are looking at the status quo, or worse. After strong seasons by Portillo (Michigan) and Levi (Northeastern), the latter winning the Mike Richter award, either, or both, would likely see the AHL. It would be much to ask a minor league rookie to play at the NHL level. On the flipside, however, it would be an upgrade in the interim.
Outside of prospects, including Luokkonen, Kevyn Adams does not have much. Craig Anderson was fine in his own right but is it reasonable to expect 50+ games? From everything I read or hear, Anderson has a positive impact on the locker room, which the players respect. The workload would be a concern. If he is back, it is as a backup with Luokkonen as the starter. The major concern would be Luokkonen’s health and substitutes are not nearly enough. Malcolm Subban‘s time in Buffalo was uneventful other than season ending surgery. The little he played was inconsistent but he could return on a cheaper deal as Subban is well liked among the team. I would say Aaron Dell or Dustin Tokarski are either gone or relegated to the minors. Both struggled at the NHL level but as AHL/ECHL netminders, they are fine.
My thoughts: the more short term solution is not in house. For this team to compete for a playoff spot, the young Sabres need consistent goaltending. Luokkonen would be a prime choice for the Sabres as a regular, pending his health, a major question mark. So what are possibilities outside of the organization?
In terms of free agency, goaltender options are limited. The Sabres, however, have the cap space to make this work short term. Two year deals or less would be the ticket here. More than that runs the risk of limiting the rest of the roster. Kevyn Adams, however, has room to fix the crease as their prospects continue developing.
*Ages are based on the tentative start of next season.
Braden Holtby, 33*
The 2016 Vezina Trophy winner has clearly seen better days but still has value…when healthy. The pending UFA goaltender’s posted solid numbers in 24 games with the Dallas Stars but is struggling to stay in the lineup. Holtby’s return to the Stars, if there is interest on either side, is also hindered by the strong play of the Jake Oettinger. If signed by the Sabres, Holtby is the immediate starter. Any doubt, however, comes in the form of dependability.
Casey DeSmith, 31
Albeit younger than Holtby, DeSmith’s health is also a concern and he has not started more than 30 games. In limited play, the Pittsburgh’s UFA has been consistent. Like Holtby, DeSmith would get a starting role and would be a solid choice. The numbers are not super impressive but they could do a lot worse. From a reliability perspective, the Sabres should be weary of a hefty number. And could this be a Carter Hutton situation.
Darcy Kuemper, 32
Of the UFA goaltender group, Kuemper has had the most success, recently. As the regular for the Avalanche, the veteran has done the job. The problem for the Sabres is that his team’s success leads to higher price tag. Colorado’s pending UFA is due for a raise from the current $4.5M AAV despite playing behind the best club in the Western Conference. Can they afford it short-term, yes? But would Kuemper’s agent be pushing for a 4 year deal or longer? That is where the Sabres could find trouble if the AAV number is high. I am not sure is really much better than Holtby yet will probably cost more. My guess is he takes a discount to stay with the Avalanche unless GM Joe Sakic believes he can find better value at the position.
After trading Sam Reinhart (Florida) for goaltender prospect, Devon Levi, I imagine Kevyn Adams hoped for his new acquisition to begin a pro career after about a year. As aforementioned, Adams must wait.
The trade market, as with any position, is typically a better route for acquiring pro talent than free agency. Player availability, however, tends to be cloudier as GM’s keep their cards close to their chest. The only indication of trade options comes from rumors through the media, which are as reliable as they sound. With that said, there is some fun to be had.
Potential Trade Opportunities
John Gibson, 29
The Anaheim goaltender’s name has swirled the rumor mill as the Ducks struggle. The 28 year old’s name appeared in Vezina conversations at times but has since faded. In the last 3 seasons, Gibson’s SV% has not reached .905 but is that due to being on a poorer hockey team? Optimism, despite pedestrian stats, could be derived from solid 5 on 5 SV% over that timeframe and a 0.957 when shorthanded this season. Again, on a poor hockey team.
Acquiring Gibson poses some challenges, despite being an obvious upgrade if acquired by the Sabres. For one, there is a modified no-trade clause (10 teams). Would Buffalo make this list? Additionally, Gibson comes with five more years at $6.4M AAV. For a franchise goaltender, the number makes sense. Kevyn Adams could afford it but will it hurt their future. Should the cap increase, this numbers should be fine. Hey…Tampa Bay makes it work with Andrei Vasilevsky making $9.5M. Gibson has some hockey left to play but any move from Anaheim is partly influenced by the player, himself.
Adin Hill, 26
There are no rumors I have heard but this could be a solid future move for the Sabres for the right price. Scouting reports mention the 6’6″ goaltender has starter upside but is still raw. In Buffalo, Hill would have the opportunity to showcase his talent, likely playing in more than the 25 from this past season. Increased workload could also occur in San Jose but should the Sharks extend Kaapo Kahkonen (RFA), their goaltender situation gets interesting. Would it be Hill/Kahkonen or Kahkonen/Reimer? If the former tandem, Sharks’ management could seek return for Hill on the trade market, where Kevyn Adams could jump in.
The problem is that Hill has been suffering from a lower body injury since January. What will his recovery look like? And what is the price? Acquiring Hill from Arizona cost the Sharks a second rounder and Josef Korenar (G). Unless Erik Portillo or Devon Levi do not intend to sign in Buffalo, I would be weary to move either. Second or third round picks would be fine (ideally not both) but more would not make sense. Adams has no interest in sacrificing many of his futures for short term fixes so he has a limit. If Adin Hill’s recovery prognosis is positive, and the price is not crazy, a trade could benefit both Hill as well as the Sabres.
Vitek Vanacek, 26/Ilya Samsonov, 25
Both Washington Capital goaltenders are RFA’s and I have to wonder if they would sign both. Throughout this season, postseason included, the games played were nearly split between the two and each story was different. During the regular season, Vanacek showed better, statistically, while Samsonov showed well during a short playoff stint. Their numbers, overall, are not overly impressive though the Capitals are not the powerhouse they have been. In terms of what the Sabres could use, either goaltender would get valuable playing time if Ukka-Pekka Luokkonen is not ready.
As their rights clearly belong to Washington, waiting until free agency does not make much sense. If I am the Sabres, I would determine a price point on a trade. This price point, however, could be higher if there is a competitive market for the Capital netminders. Teams offering second rounders could drive the cost into the first round, which Kevyn Adams should avoid. The advantage Buffalo has is three, first round selections. Yet the remaining question is which one? For the lowest, however, that might be fine. The Sabres have a second round pick, and have 9 total after trading one. Vanacek and Samsonov are moving into their prime for their position so taking a shot would be worth it.
Easier said than done
On the sofa, the solutions sound easy. In reality, the answer is far from that in a stiff goalie market. Kevyn Adams’ task to fix the crease for the Buffalo Sabres could be an expensive one. Their competition for the playoffs has the same quest, which will increase the price of free agents and trade options. As much as I would like to see John Gibson in goal for the Sabres, I would expect that to be expensive. And if there are no partners via trade/free agency, goaltending may hold the Sabres back once again. Unless UPL can be their guy, and stay healthy, next season is due to carry the same frustrations in goal.