The Sabres have an organizational need for goaltenders that extends to all levels: from the ECHL, college and AHL, all the way to the highest level of the NHL, the Sabres need help everywhere. Dustin Tokarski is under contract for the Sabres next year, but despite his feel-good story as comeback player, no one should reasonably rely on him as either an NHL starting or backup goaltender next year. Likewise, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (UPL), seemingly the future of Buffalo Sabres goaltending, has been slower to develop than perhaps anticipated and should not be relied on for meaningful NHL starts. Farther down the depth chart, the Sabres have Erik Portillo at the University of Michigan who is not under contract. The tenure of Carter Hutton is assumed to be over due to him being awful. None of these players can realistically be expected to carry any kind of load at the NHL level next year.
The organization is so thin at goaltender throughout their ranks that they could realistically be expected to add at least one goaltender through every means at their disposal: free agency, trade, and the 2021 NHL entry draft. We will look at three (or four) candidates from each of those three categories in this article and select one player from each category to restock the Sabres cupboard.
Linus Ullmark: The incumbent starting goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres faces plenty of questions regarding his ability to stay healthy rather than his ability to stop the puck when he is physically able to tend the net. Ullmark sustained two separate injuries in the 2021 season which may have severely limited his ability to cash in on a big paycheck as a pending unrestricted free agent. Still, Ullmark somehow posted a record of 9-6-3 this year with a .917 save percentage on a team that was, shall we say, bad. The Sabres will likely need to add another starting-caliber goaltender to supplement Ullmark due to his extensive injury history if they choose to extend him.
Chris Driedger: Driedger is a 26-year-old pending UFA currently under contract with the Florida Panthers. Originally drafted by the Ottawa Senators, Driedger only played three games over three years with that organization before leaving in free agency. He posted a stellar .938 save percentage in 12 games with the Florida Panthers this year, but with such a small sample size, the question must be asked: Is he really an NHL starting goaltender, or did he simply catch lightning in a bottle like Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond?
Jaroslav Halak: There is a part of me that included Halak largely because he can be called a “former Sabre” although he never actually played for the Blue and Gold. He was traded to the Sabres as a part of the Ryan Miller trade to St. Louis and he did suit up as a backup goaltender for one game in 2014 before being dealt to the Washington Capitals, so it makes sense that the Sabres would want to bring back such an illustrious part of their past. There are questions as to whether Halak still has enough gas in the tank at 36 years old after posting a .905 save percentage in 2021 for the Boston Bruins, but with a .916 career save percentage, he does have a proven pedigree.
Joonas Korpisalo: Sabres fans have been eyeing one of the two Columbus Blue Jackets goaltenders for the past couple years and there may be an opportunity to buy low on one of their goaltenders. Korpisalo is coming off a season where he only posted an .894 save percentage in 33 games which is pretty damn bad. Perhaps now is good time to inquire with general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen as to his availability. The Sabres have plenty of pieces in play so it could be part of a larger trade, or perhaps the Sabres make a smaller trade for a draft pick to acquire Korpisalo who has one year left on his contract.
Mikhail Berdin: This Russian goaltending prospect could be a perfect candidate to backup whomever the Sabres swelect to be their starter next year. At 23 years of age, and with two solid years of play in the AHL, perhaps the Sabres could swing a trade with the Winnipeg Jets to bring Berdin aboard as part of a package for Rasmus Ristolainen.
Kaapo Kähkönen: For whatever reason, the Sabres and the Minnesota Wild love trading with each other. Every Sabres GM since Darcy Regier has made at least one trade with the Wild, and Kevyn Adams has already made one move by acquiring Eric Staal from Minnesota last summer. Call it a hunch or maybe just habit, but perhaps the Sabres spend a mid-to-late-round pick to acquire the 24-year-old. It shouldn’t take much to pry him away from GM Bill Guerin.
Alexandar Georgiev: The Rangers have long been linked to the Sabres in a prospective Jack Eichel trade and certainly Georgiev would be a nice secondary piece for the Sabres to eye in such a scenario. At only 25 years old and with another season under contract before an RFA contract extension would need to be reached, Georgiev would be a great addition for the Sabres if they viewed him as a goaltender of the future. The Rangers’ lack of elite center prospects diminishes the possibility of an Eichel trade – and therefore a Georgiev trade – somewhat.
Via the Draft:
Jesper Wallstedt: The draft (at least as it pertains to goaltenders) begins with Jesper Wallstedt who is projected to go somewhere around the 5th overall pick. He has decent goalie height at 6’3” and he already has NHL weight at 214 lbs as an 18-year-old. The Swedish-born netminder likely will not entice the Sabres due to their selection being somewhere between 1-3, but if the Sabres can pick up another top-ten pick via trade, they absolutely must consider drafting Wallstedt. He has all the makings of a franchise netminder.
Sebastian Cossa: At the beginning of the second round, the Sabres should have a chance to select the absolutely enormous Canadian. At 6’6” and 207 pounds, he has elite measurables. Eugene Helfrick of thehockeywriters.com describes the prospect thusly: “Cossa has all of the aspects that NHL general managers look for when they take a big swing on a goaltender. He has the size and toolkit to justify a late first-round selection for a team needing a top-end goalie prospect, and when you take into account that his ceiling is a number-one starting goaltender, one can expect him to draw a lot of attention on draft day.”
Talyn Boyko: He’s included in this article because his height is almost otherworldly at 6’8”. The tall Canadian is projected as a mid-to-late round selection. There are always concerns with tall goaltenders as they often seem more prone to injury and their lateral movement and quickness can suffer. The Sabres could take a low-risk flyer on him in the mid rounds, though.
In the end, the Sabres would do well to come away with Ullmark, Berdin and Cossa. That trio would provide them with short, medium, and long-term stability while minimizing the acquisition cost required to land them. Ullmark requires only a contract, Berdin could be part of a Rasmus Ristolainen deal, and Cossa may be available as the first pick of the 2nd round of the NHL entry draft. In any case, the Sabres will need to expend resources this summer to solidify the goaltending position; they simply cannot be competitive without doing so.