Evaluating the Sabres’ options on the goaltending market

The Buffalo Sabres are certainly not off to the best of starts with a 1-3-0 record. However, their underlying numbers have been solid and all signs point to a regression to the mean that will eventually lead to better results. After their first 4 games, the Sabres are 4th in the NHL in adjusted 5v5 expected GF% (58.1%), but they come in at 21st in actual 5v5 GF% (43.8%).

The huge disparity in their expected and actual numbers this season can be attributed to a poor 5v5 shooting percentage (20th in NHL at 6.7%) and 5v5 save percentage (26th in NHL at .897). We can likely assume that the Sabres shooting percentage should improve, especially with players like Jeff Skinner generating a good amount of danger and Jack Eichel currently sitting with 0 goals. 

Their 5v5 save percentage should improve as well. The Sabres ranked 11th in that category in 2019/20 at .922. This was primarily due to the team not giving up much danger (10th in 5v5 xGA/60), but the goaltenders still stopped what they should have stopped at 5v5. 

The majority of the Sabres goaltending woes from last season came on the penalty kill, where their save percentage ranked 29th in the NHL at .841. The penalty kill was far from great, but poor goaltending made the actual results significantly worse than the expected results. These poor results at non-5v5 states in 2019/20 drove the Sabres all-situation save percentage down to 24th in the NHL (.900). 

It has been an extremely small sample size in 2020/21, but there is no denying the fact that the Sabres’ goaltenders have dealt with easy workloads and have put up sub-par results. However, this is not anything new in the goaltending corps. Among goaltenders with at least 25 GP, Linus Ullmark finished 34th of 52 in SV% Above Expected and Carter Hutton finished 47th of 52. So, I believe it is safe to say that goaltending has been a problem for the Buffalo Sabres and continues to be a problem. 

That problem may be compounded as Carter Hutton is dealing with a potential injury after the Ivan Provorov incident. There is currently no timetable on his return and Dustin Tokarski has been re-called from Rochester to the taxi squad. There could be a deal for quick fix at the backup goalie spot if Hutton is out for an extended period of time.

Regardless of how the Hutton situation unfolds, the Sabres should also be looking to improve their goaltending long-term. The 35 year-old Hutton is in the final year of his 3-year contract in Buffalo and Linus Ullmark is on a 1-year “prove-it” deal where he becomes a UFA this offseason. Decisions between the pipes will have to be made at some point in the near future.

So, let’s take a look at some goalies that may help the Sabres solve their goaltending woes. I will break down the potential candidates into two categories: the quick fixes (older or unproven goalies who may be able to provide short term assistance) and the long-term options (goalies who you may be able to lock in as your #1 for the foreseeable future).

Quick Fixes

Antti Raanta (ARI)
Raanta has been a very solid goaltender for a very long time, but has typically found himself in a backup role for most of his career. He has been awesome for the Coyotes as of late, finishing 10th in MoneyPuck’s SV% Above Expected among goalies with at least 25 GP in 2019/20. If you want to improve the penalty kill, Antti Raanta also put together the 4th best save shorthanded save percentage in the league last season.

He is a borderline quick fix/long-term option guy on this list because he has consistently put up solid numbers throughout his career, but he is already 31 years old. Whichever team acquires him should be able to squeeze a few more above average years from Raanta, but what his individual aging curve will look like remains a question mark.

Arizona is currently faced with a peculiar situation in net as they currently carry three goalies on their 23-man roster as opposed to the usual two. This is because their third-string goalie, Adin Hill, is no longer exempt from waivers and would have to pass through waivers to be placed on the taxi squad. With the current barren status of the NHL goalie market, Hill would most definitely be claimed by another team. So, this may make the Coyotes one of the more likely candidates to part with a goalie via trade this season.

The trickiest thing for the Buffalo Sabres in regards to acquiring Antti Raanta will be navigating the salary cap. Raanta comes in at a $3.9M effective cap hit this season and the Sabres currently sit with a hair under $1.9M in projected cap space. Even if Coyotes retained 50% of his cap hit (which would increase his trade value even more), the Sabres would still be over the cap by about $100,000. So, it will take some money going back to Arizona or some cap tricks by Kevyn Adams in a trade scenario.

This presents some difficulty for the Sabres because they do not have a lot of a moveable salary that would pique the Coyotes’ interest. They likely have no interest in acquiring Carter Hutton in return unless they believe they can flip him in another trade because they would remain locked into a three goalie situation. Maybe they look to move a player like Colin Miller who has been underutilized during his time in Buffalo? 

Adin Hill (ARI)
We will be sticking in the desert for this next goalie with the younger, but less proven Adin Hill. The most notable thing about Hill is certainly his intriguing size in net at 6’6”. The 3rd round pick in 2015 was always seen as a raw goalie prospect who needed to refine his skills, but he seems to be hitting his stride at the pro level out in Arizona. In 2019/20, Hill posted a .918 SV% for Roadrunners in 20 AHL games and also posted a .918 SV% for the Coyotes in 13 NHL games. 

He only had a 13-game sample size in the NHL last season, but he posted the 11th best SV% Above Expected numbers among goalies with at least 10 GP. That slots him right between Carter Hart and Mackenzie Blackwood, certainly not bad company to be in. The Coyotes really saw no real drop off in goaltending play when Hill was in the net rather than Kuemper or Raanta. There are certainly some very encouraging statistical signs in Hill’s game which makes him an interesting option when combined with his physical traits.

As I mentioned earlier, the Coyotes are currently dealing with a logjam in net since he is no longer waivers exempt. He is still struggling to get NHL backup minutes even though he is 24 years old and has a solid resume. With Raanta in the final year of his contract, they will likely opt to move him before the younger Hill, but maybe some prying could get Hill to Buffalo.

The huge difference between Hill and Raanta is their cap hit and experience. Adin Hill only carries a $800k cap hit this season, so the Sabres will not have to move any salary out in a trade. But, the lack of experience is what will make this trade riskier than some of the other options. Hill simply has not faced as many pucks at the NHL level as other goalies have. He could transform into a #1 if last season is his standard going forward or he could be out of the league if last season was his peak. That’s the risk that whoever deals for him will have to take.

Marc-Andre Fleury (VGK)
I do believe Fleury is an option the Sabres will pursue. The young, wide-eyed goaltender who backstopped the rising Penguins squad in the late 2000s is now 36 years old and carries a major $7M cap hit. Fleury is the true definition of a “quick fix” as he looks to be in his final years as an NHL goaltender.

There is no doubting the fact that Fleury had a breakout season in the Golden Knights inaugural season, posting a .927 SV% en route to the Stanley Cup final appearance. However, that season is looking more like a later career “flash in the pan” rather than the status quo. Fleury’s statistics has seemingly been dropping off ever since, posting a .913 SV% in 2018/19 and then a .905 SV% in 2019/20 before losing the starting job to Robin Lehner.

In 2019/20, Marc-Andre Fleury was worse than both Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton at 5v5. According to MoneyPuck, his -.032% 5v5 SV% Above Expected came in 36th among the 52 goalies with at least 25 GP. Ullmark and Hutton finished 20th and 24th respectively.

We can even zoom out to compare the three goaltenders at both even strength and shorthanded states in 2019/20 using Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model. All three players have yielded similar, mediocre results over the past season: Ullmark with .139 GAR/60, Fleury with .127 GAR/60, and Hutton with .063 GAR/60.

Screen Shot 2021 01 21 at 4.21.14 PM Evaluating the Sabres' options on the goaltending market

Based on everything we can see statistically, Fleury may be a marginal upgrade to Hutton and can probably provide, at best, similar value to Ullmark. At 36 years old, Fleury is on the wrong side of the aging curve and it is difficult to see him posting a bounce back season in 2020/21.

In terms of making the trade work, I think it could be an easy one considering the massive $7M cap hit that comes with it. First off, Vegas would absolutely have to retain some of that cap hit in order to make things work, likely 50%. Secondly, Carter Hutton would probably have to go to Vegas in this deal with little to no salary retained. The Golden Knights do not have a solid third string goalie at the moment, so they should be interested in taking an expiring Hutton contract in return. 

A trade could look like Carter Hutton (15% retained) for Marc-Andre Fleury (50% retained). This would leave the Sabres with $700k in remaining cap space and would open up over $1M of cap space for Vegas in 2020/21 and $3.5M in 2021/22. Due to the salary cap implications, this could be a trade Vegas would do one-for-one.

Does it make sense for the Sabres? I mean it could give them an upgrade over Hutton, but at an additional $1M cost. They will also be stuck with a $3.5M cap hit with Fleury in 2021/22 rather than having Hutton’s contract completely come off the books by then. It is clear that Fleury is a below average goalie at this point in his career and he will most likely not live up to his cap hit, even at 50% retained.

Chris Driedger (FLA)
While Sergei Bobrovsky struggled in his first season in the Sunshine State, Chris Driedger managed to thrive. In 2019/20, Driedger appeared in 13 games for the Panthers and posted a very impressive .931 SV%. The Panthers went 7-2-1 in games where he was given the start. 

He managed to have the best save percentage above expected numbers among any goalie with at least 10 GP in 2019/20. He also had the best GAR/60 of any goalie in Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model. Once again, there should be a huge small sample size alert here, but Driedger managed to crush the minutes he was given in the NHL last season.

The 26 year-old Driedger has had a bit of an unconventional path to an NHL backup spot. The WHL product was signed by the Senators after being drafted by the team, making very brief appearances in the NHL and spending a lot of the time in the AHL/ECHL with mediocre numbers. He signed with Springfield, the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in 2018 and was given an NHL contract after an impressive 2018/19 campaign where he led the AHL in SV%. It’s as if a light switch had turned on as soon as he entered the Panthers’ organization.

The biggest question with Driedger is whether his recent performances are just flashes in the pan or whether he is capable of performing well in a larger NHL role. His age and his recent performances would provide the Sabres a player with some decent potential. But, they could also be dealing with another Andrew Hammond if his success is nothing more than a goalie on a hot streak.

Long-Term Options

John Gibson (ANA)
Now that we move into some of the long-term options, John Gibson is inevitably a player who will pop up on this list. The situation for Gibson in Anaheim is not ideal as the Ducks are entering a rebuilding stage as Gibson enters his late 20s. They appear to be in a situation where the two parties’ timelines do not match up, so maybe we see the rare situation where an elite goaltender in his prime is dealt.

Gibson had a bit of a down year in 2019/20, but he also had to play behind one of the worst defensive teams in hockey in the Anaheim Ducks. From the 2015/16 season to the 2018/19 season, he consistently ranked among the league’s elite net minders. His GAR/60 during that span was second only to a player previously mentioned in this article, Antti Raanta. 

Last season was certainly not the norm for Gibson, where he did not post much better numbers than the Sabres’ current netminders. But, we have already seen flashes of the old John Gibson in 2020/21 as he has posted a .937 SV% in 3 GP so far. The talent has not gone anywhere, just a little more luck on his side should see his numbers bounce back to the usual.

The main roadblock to acquiring John Gibson is the cost. He is among the league’s elite netminders and if the Ducks ever do decide to sell on him, expect the cost to be significantly more than the typical goalie trade. The Sabres would likely have to give up a valuable combination of players, prospects, and draft picks. As many hockey fans know, spending a lot of assets on goaltending can be risky business. However, a talent like John Gibson may just be worth it.

He would provide the Sabres with their first true #1 goalie since the departure of Ryan Miller in 2014. He is locked up on a long-term contract until 2026/27 that carries a cap hit of $6.4M. It is a bit of a pricier contract that goes into his 30’s, but it’s pretty decent when you take into consideration the contracts that Sergei Bobrovsky and Jacob Markstrom were given in free agency. I do think this will be more of an offseason trade if anything, especially with the money that will need to be moved around to make things work.

Elvis Merzlikins (CBJ)
The Sabres already have on Latvian superstar in Zemgus Girgensons, maybe they can add another in Elvis Merzlikins? Merzlikins showed up big time in his rookie campaign with Columbus in 2019/20, posting an impressive .923 SV% and finishing 5th in both Calder and Vezina voting. 

However, one must take into account the fact that the Blue Jackets play one of the best defensive games in hockey. There may not be an easier team in the NHL to backstop. His SV% Above Expected was in the middle of the pack, placing 25th among the 52 goalies with at least 25 GP. Evolving-Hockey viewed his 2019/20 campaign much more favorably, with his GAR/60 coming in 7th of those same 52 goalies. 

Despite not playing in the NHL until last season, Merzlikins will be 27 years old in April. There is not a large sample size of NHL level play for a player his age, but we do know that he dominated the Swiss League before coming to North America. He won the league’s goalie of the year award in both 2015/16 and 2017/18. He has also been an absolute force in net for Latvians in his four IIHF World Championship appearances.

I think it’s apparent that Merzlikins is a talented netminder and could be a talented netminder in this league for quite some time despite his late start. The Blue Jackets are currently splitting his goalie duties with Joonas Korpisalo, another solid NHL goalie who is just 15 days younger. There were some rumors this offseason that they would be willing to part with one of these netminders to bolster their offense. 

This provides a very nice opportunity for the Sabres to possibly acquire a player who may become a longer-term #1 option. Merzlikins carries a cap hit of $4M, so the Sabres would have to ship out over $2M in cap hit in a deal that will likely see no retained salary. That cap hit would likely have to come from a forward who could help the Blue Jackets offense who is already off to a slow start. Dare I say a player like Victor Olofsson could fit their needs?

Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ)
Now we will take a look at the other netminder in Columbus. Most fans probably are familiar with Joonas Korpisalo’s name after the incredible 5 OT battle against the Lightning where he managed to stop 85 of 88 shots in a heroic effort.

Like Merzlikins, Korpisalo was no slouch in net for the Blue Jackets last season. He did not manage to put together the same flashy numbers as Merzlikins (.911 SV% compared to .923 SV%), but managed to be a middle-of-the-pack goaltender in most categories. However, there is absolutely some concern regarding his numbers prior to 2019/20. He had a solid rookie campaign in 2015/16 with a .920 SV%, but followed that up with a .905 SV% season and two .897 SV% seasons.

In 2018/19, Korpisalo had the 4th worst SV% Above Expected among goalies with at least 25 GP. In 2017/18, he had the 5th worst SV% Above Expected among goalies with at least 15 GP. There is some concern that Korpisalo may fall back to these old numbers and he does not appear to be more than a middle-of-the-pack goaltender in his best seasons.

The biggest question here: is he an upgrade to Linus Ullmark? I do not think you can say that he is. Both goaltenders posted similar numbers last season. Both goaltenders appear to struggle with shots in close. Both goaltenders are nearly the same age with Ullmark only being 9 months older. If you want to take the past three seasons into account, I think Ullmark comes out as the better player. I just do not think it is worth giving up assets to “upgrade” goaltending if the plan is simply to acquire a goalie who is very similar to the team’s current #1 option.

The one advantage Joonas Korpisalo provides over Elvis Merzlikins is a lower cap hit at $2.8M, but I do not think there is enough of a difference there to make him a more appealing option for the Sabres. If Kevyn Adams calls Columbus regarding goaltending, I think he is much better off pushing for Merzlikins.

Alexander Georgiev (NYR)
Last but not least is one of the many young and talented Russian netminders in the league in Alexander Georgiev. Despite having multiple years of NHL experience, Georgiev is actually younger than their new NHL full-timer, Igor Shesterkin. I do not believe the Rangers will be in any hurry to move Georgiev, but maybe they look to move him to bolster their lineup if Shesterkin proves he can take over the reigns as a #1. 

In 2019/20, Alexander Georgiev posted a .910 SV% over 32 GP which is not bad considering the Rangers’ recent defensive woes. He finished 21st in SV% Above Expected and 25th in GAR/60 among the 52 goalies with at least 25 NHL GP. Overall, he has been an average to slightly above average goalie throughout his first four seasons in the league.

The most intriguing part about Georgiev is the fact that he is 24 years old and already has a good amount of NHL experience under his belt. You may not be getting one of the league’s elite starters, but you will be getting a reliable netminder who you can keep within the organization for 7+ years, likely at a lower cap hit too. 

The biggest downside about Georgiev is likely the cost it will take to acquire him. He was a hot commodity on the trade market when Henrik Lundqvist was still in New York, but teams were able to find cheaper goaltending options elsewhere on the trade market. If the Rangers are still looking for a hefty return on Georgiev, it may just be cheaper trade value-wise for the Sabres to look at one of the “quick fix” guys. He is an upgrade over the current in-house options, but he may not be worth paying a premium for.

Data via:
Hockey Reference

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