Inside the NHL: To get good in goal, sometimes teams just have to be lucky | Buffalo Sabers News

It’s the question this corner keeps getting since the Buffalo Sabers’ season ended with so much promise. And its momentum is building through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially during the Tampa Bay-New York East final, and will continue all the way to free agency. We won’t stop hearing it.

How are the Sabers going to find one of those goalies?

Sad to say, there’s no great answer to the question. It seems like the key to finding a true No. 1 goaltender in hockey may be much like the hot-button topic of how to build a bullpen in baseball.

All you have to do is look back at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia. It had been nearly four months since the Sabers traded Ryan Miller to St. Louis. They had Jhonas Enroth in the organization and other immortal names in goal like Matt Hackett, Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp. They had acquired Michal Neuvirth in a trade and, like Enroth, he was at least an NHL-worthy talent.

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But then-GM Tim Murray knew the pipeline in goal was thin and this was a year when there were a ton of goalies from which to choose. So in the third round, at No. 61 overall, Murray made the reasonable decision to choose one. A Swedish kid named Jonas Johansson. Major oof.

The Sabers traded him to Colorado 15 months ago after two years of waiting for him to come to North America and five years of him being mostly unable to stop the puck whether he was in Cincinnati, Rochester or Buffalo. The 2014 draft also was the year the New York Rangers plucked a kid named Igor Shesterkin out of the Russian juniors at No. 118 overall. You may have heard of him right about now.

Admittedly, you can not slam Murray too much for that. Everybody else in the league passed on Shesterkin three times over that weekend and owner Terry Pegula was not going to jump back in on a Russian while still dealing with the debacle that was 2012 first-rounder Mikhail Grigorenko.

Still, in taking Johansson, it’s a shot to the gut to see other goalies drafted that year who Murray did not get.

Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko (No. 36), Detroit’s Alex Nedeljkovic (37-Carolina) and Washington’s Vitek Vanecek (39) all went into the second round, while the Sabers were frittering away picks on non-NHL forwards Eric Cornel and Vaclav Karabacek. The third round featured Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins at No. 76 and Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders at No. 78. The fourth round saw St. Louis’ Ville Husso go at 94, Minnesota’s Kaapo Kahkonen at No. 109 and then Shesterkin.

That’s a lot of legit goalies in one draft year.

The East final, which continues with Game 4 Tuesday night in Tampa Bay, was billed as a mega goaltending matchup and the Rangers’ 2-1 lead in the series has been built on Shesterkin winning the head-to-head with Tampa Bay colossus Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Shesterkin has a 2.35 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in three games against Tampa Bay after a 1.72 / .949 that made the difference in the seven-game win over Carolina in Round 2.

Vasilevskiy is at 3.73 / .880 in this series (thanks mostly to that six-goal Game 1), after ringing up an 0.75 / .981 in the four-game sweep of Florida by allowing just three goals on 154 shots.

The Lightning, remember, spent a first-rounder on Vasilevskiy in 2012 at No. 19 overall but even that was no guarantee. They still waited for him to play two years in the KHL before he came to North America and then for him to take over the top slot from Ben Bishop. Outside of Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy, how many goalies on the final eight teams left in the playoffs were the draft-and-develop type? St. Louis had the tandem of Husso and Jordan Binnington while the rest were acquired through trades or free agency.

The Sabers still have high hopes for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen but next year is a key year for him even though he’s young at 23. It’s now five years since they spent a second-round pick on him and he’s played just 13 NHL games. He has to show he can be durable as well as effective in the net.

The Sabers obviously like Luukkonen’s game, to the point where it’s generally assumed the 23-year-old is going to start next season as half of their goalie tandem.

You want to talk lucky, you might have to think in terms of Devon Levi. A seventh-round pick acquired from Florida in the Sam Reinhart trade, he’s blown up to be one of the top young Canadian goalies and a potential Hobey Baker Award winner next year at Northeastern.

Turning Levi into a goalie franchise is the kind of luck teams need but he remains a down-the-road project. The Sabers still need to mine free agency and don’t figure to be all that involved with the long-term, big-money guys like Husso, Toronto’s Jack Campbell or Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper.

The NHL Scouting Combine over the weekend in LECOM HarborCenter was mostly bereft of goaltenders. The most prominent, 6-foot-5 Topias Leinonen of Finland, tipped the scales at a whopping 233 pounds here. Central Scouting’s top European goalie prospect, he had a 5.02 / .825 in four games in the top Finnish league. That’s surely a small sample size but those numbers were his numbers nonetheless. He’s 18 and is expected to be a middle-round pick, so you’re looking at 3-4 years before you can think of the NHL in most cases.

It’s tough to play the long game when you’re a team like the Sabers looking to take a big jump. Luukkonen needs to be good in 2022-23. One or both of Levi and Michigan’s Erik Portillo needs to be signed after next season. It’s the toughest position to figure and the toughest one to fill.

Jimmy Snuggerud of the US National Development team is not the only Sabers alumni-connected name heading into the draft. Minnesota high schooler Zam Plante – yes, Derek’s son – is following Casey Mittelstadt’s path of splitting time between his high school team and the United States Hockey League before heading off to college. He’s committed to play in 2023-24 at Minnesota-Duluth, where Derek is the associate head coach, and is projected to go around the fourth round of this year’s draft.

Zam Plante is undersized at 5-foot-9 but can play both center and left wing. He had 24 goals and 64 points in just 22 games for Hermantown High School, including two goals in a state title-game victory at the Minnesota Wild’s XCel Energy Center. He also collected 10 goals and 21 points in 31 games for the USHL’s Chicago Steel. He did not participate in combine tests due to injury.

Mike Harrington: Jimmy Snuggerud is a much different player than his former Saber father

He’s a first-round pick in virtually any mock draft you find from roughly pick Nos. 15-25.

• What happens to Russian players in the draft this year given the situation in Ukraine? They weren’t at the combine and Central Scouting director Dan Marr said it remains to be seen what will happen to the draft stock of the highly regarded ones.

“On the scouting side of it, I’m pretty sure the management of the clubs will say, ‘Your job is to tell us what this player is like as a possible NHL player down the road. So give us your take on what his skills and assets are and how he competes and how he could fare, ‘”Marr said. “None of us know what’s going to go on two, three years from now. So everyone’s wondering how the teams are going to approach it. … cross your fingers and hope that the world in a different place a couple of years from now ? “

Pittsburgh native Logan Cooley, a lock to go either second or third in the draft, said he likes to pattern his game after South Buffalo native Patrick Kane. Juraj Slavkofsky, who is pushing Shane Wright for No. 1, likes Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen.

Wright isn’t going to be a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews type but many feel he could be much like Patrice Bergeron has been in Boston for the last decade. Not bad.

Former Niagara player Eric Cooley inspired brother Logan in journey to NHL draft

While Cooley was working his way back from a traumatic injury, Logan, was always watching. Inspired by Eric’s recovery and driven to achieve a lifelong dream, Logan developed into the possible No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL draft, which will be held July 7 in Montreal.

• Florida’s quick playoff exit made it four years in a row the Presidents’ Trophy winner dropped four straight games to be eliminated from a series. The Panthers (by Tampa Bay) and 2019 Lightning (Columbus) got swept, while the 2021 Avalanche got blitzed four straight by Vegas after taking a 2-0 lead and the 2020 Bruins dropped four straight to Tampa Bay in the Toronto bubble after winning the opening game.

The last Presidents’ Trophy winner to even get to the conference final was the 2015 Rangers, who lost Game 7 at home to Tampa Bay. The last regular-season champion to win the Stanley Cup was the 2013 Blackhawks and that was only in a 48-game season. In a full season, you have to go back to the 2008 Red Wings.

Just eight of the 35 winners have won the Cup and only 11 even made the final. More than half (19 of 35) lost in either the first or second round.

• All you keep hearing from segments of the Philadelphia media is that Calgary star and South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau is coming home this summer in free agency. There’s either going to be a lot of I-told-you-sos or a lot of cheesesteak sauce on the face when Gaudreau (115 points, NHL-high plus-64 rating) makes his decision.

• It’s June. ESPN has televised hockey games all season. Why can’t the Worldwide Leader figure out the audio on its NHL telecasts? The crowd noise is constantly drowning out the announcers, be it the ones in the press box calling the game or the ones at ice level doing analysis or giving reports. And the studio shows have not been on site for the East final, like TNT is doing for the West final.

ESPN’s talent has been pretty good. It seems like Sean McDonough never left hockey even though he had not called it for 18 years. But the production quality has been abysmal at times.


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