Linus Ullmark got the start for the Buffalo Sabres last Thursday after Robin Lehner sustained a minor upper body injury during the loss earlier in the week to the Philadelphia Flyers. Despite facing 45 shots from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ullmark only let one slip by him while delivering the Sabres their first win in six games.
Ullmark looked solid in his win, and has posted great numbers with the Rochester Americans in the AHL this season. He has a 17-5-3 record with a save percentage of .928 and a goals against average of 2.24, along with 2 shutouts. He leads the AHL in games played, wins, and is tied for the lead in shutouts. Ullmark deserved his call up on Monday, and deserves to get more starts with the Sabres before the end of this season.
When Ullmark was drafted by the Sabres during the sixth round in 2012, his chances of seeing an NHL start were already low. But after playing great with Modo Hockey in the Swedish Hockey League for two seasons, including winning the SHL goalie of the year trophy in 2014, Ullmark got 20 starts with the Sabres in 2015/16. During that season his numbers were 8-10-2, .913, and 2.60; great stats for a rookie goalie.
Since 2015/16, Ullmark has only started one NHL game, a late season game against the Tampa Bay Lightning last April. He has instead bided his time in Rochester, waiting for his next chance. He took advantage of that chance on Thursday, showing coach Phil Housley and GM Jason Botterill he can be relied on to win games in the NHL. For Botterill, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, Botterill sent the Vegas Golden Knights a 6th-round draft pick to keep the Knights from selecting Ullmark in the expansion draft.
What Ullmark’s play actually means for Botterill is that he can trade either of the team’s goalies and still have an option in goal. Ullmark can easily step into Chad Johnson’s backup role if that is the goalie the Sabres decide to part with. Johnson has played terribly in his return season with the Sabres, making it easy for the team to be willing to turn to the 24-year-old Ullmark.
Botterill also must decide if he should trade Lehner, and there is significant smoke out there indicating teams are interested in the proven starter. Whether or not trading Lehner is a mistake, it is still a decision that must be made and part of that decision for the GM is if they have a goalie that can be their new starter. For Botterill, Ullmark may very well have just played his way into that starting role come the trade deadline.
Ullmark is relatively unproven, but has performed reliably in every league he’s been in. If the Sabres believe he is their goalie of the future over Lehner, then giving him the reigns as starter for the last quarter of the season would prepare him well for next season. Of course, some would argue the team already has a proven starter in Robin Lehner. However, Lehner needs a new contract this offseason, and was not Botterill’s choice in starting goalie. Perhaps the new GM wants to go in a different direction.