Two games into the 2015-16 campaign, Buffalo already has big questions between the pipes. The Sabres have allowed seven goals in back-to-back losses and news came Sunday that starting netminder Robin Lehner won’t be back anytime soon.
Following Sunday practice, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Lehner, who was injured in Buffalo’s season-opener, will miss between six to 10 weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Lehner, 24, was one of the Sabres’ big off-season pick ups, acquired from the Ottawa Senators for a first-round pick in the 2015 draft. He was the clear-cut No. 1 netminder in Buffalo.
For Saturday’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Chad Johnson got the start for the Sabres and the club recalled Nathan Lieuwen from the Rochester Americans to fill-in as the backup. But in Johnson and Lieuwen, the Sabres have a pair of inexperienced netminders. Combined, the duo has 65 NHL games between them and a 29-20-7 record.
With Lehner’s timetable for recovery, he stands to miss anywhere from 18 to 32 contests. And if that’s on the high end, by the time Lehner returns to the crease, Buffalo’s season could be too far gone to recover. So what are the Sabres’ options?
For the time being, there’s a good possibility the Sabres will choose to run with the duo of Johnson and Lieuwen, but if the pair struggles — and that’s a very likely scenario — Buffalo could dig into the AHL roster and bring up either of their promising 22-year-old netminders from Rochester.
Both Andrey Makarov and Linus Ullmark are likely to split starts in the AHL while Lieuwen is in the NHL, but Ullmark got off to a great start Saturday. In his first career AHL game, he stopped 38 of 39 shots that came his way and helped the Amerks to a 2-1 victory over the Utica Comets. As for Makarov, he appeared in 39 contests for Rochester in 2014-15, posted a 16-18-3 record, three shutouts, 2.91 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
If Sabres GM Tim Murray feels his club could have a legitimate chance at taking a big step forward this season, though, he could look at options via the trade market. One potential trade partner could be the Calgary Flames, who are currently holding three goaltenders on their roster with young puckstopper Joni Ortio ineligible to be sent to the AHL without clearing waivers.
In this young season, Calgary has already used netminders Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo and there’s a good chance Ortio could work his way between the pipes over the course of Calgary’s next few outings. Hiller was more impressive in his season debut, picking up the Flames’ first victory of the season in overtime. Ramo, on the other hand, allowed five goals on 44 shots as the Flames were downed in their opener.
There are some other available options, however, including veteran Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom, who has lost his spot on the Minnesota roster. While he’s coming off of inarguably the worst season of his career, Backstrom could be a half-decent stopgap for the Sabres with Lehner on the shelf.
Another interesting option could be Carolina goaltender Cam Ward, who is in the final season of his contract with the Hurricanes. Ward, like Backstrom, is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career. That said, with the Hurricanes inking Eddie Lack to a contract extension, the writing may be on the wall when it comes to Ward’s future in Carolina. The only issue for the Sabres would be finding a way to fit Ward and his $6.3-million cap onto the roster. In all likelihood, swinging a deal with Carolina would require the Hurricanes to absorb some of Ward’s salary.
Whatever the Sabres do, they’ll need to find a fix in goal. After finishing as the worst team in the NHL in 2014-15, there were high hopes for the current campaign, the first of Jack Eichel’s young career. Without Lehner — and with an unproven duo in Johnson and Lieuwen — Buffalo’s uphill climb has gotten steeper already.