Monday, May 12, 2014

Notebook: Clock ticking for Ullmark

While waiting for the next major events to take place – mainly the 2014 Memorial Cup and the NHL Draft
Combine – one thing to keep an eye on is the signing of MODO goaltender Linus Ullmark to an entry-level contract. 

The 2014 Honken Trophy winner as SHL Goalie of the Year, Ullmark needs to be signed by June 1 for the Sabres to retain his rights. Ullmark, who last week served as Sweden’s third goalie for the Oddset Hockey Games, has already stated that he’ll return to the Swedish hockey factory for one more season before making the North American jump.

Speaking of goalies, the future of the Sabres crease-shavers appears to be in good hands – literally – as the glove work of both Andrey Makarov and Cal Petersen has been quite noticeable in their strong postseason performances. With Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth set to battle as the NHL-level rebuild continues, things are coming together in the pipeline behind them. Nathan Lieuwen and Matt Hackett provide ample depth despite their late season injuries…but I’m still looking for the Sabres to add another netminder relatively high in the 2014 draft class for two simple reasons:

       1) competition is healthy
       2)  it’s wise to keep the cupboards well-stocked with elite talent at every position

The idea of taking a goaltender early in the draft will no doubt draw rage from Sabres fans. Many teams are less inclined to select a goalie early, especially given the advances in team defense leading to five shot-blockers in front of the net, but a pattern has developed that suggests that guys taken in the top three rounds offer the most viable long-term options.

OK, genius. So you’re trying to argue that better talent comes with higher picks? WOW YOU’VE CRACKED THE CODE!

The Sabres haven’t selected a goaltender in the top-90 since getting Enroth 46th overall in 2006. Interestingly enough, Neuvirth went 12 spots before him at #34 to Washington. Matt Hackett, who for my money looked better than Lieuwen in his limited NHL duty, was a third-rounder in 2009 despite being the top-rated North American in his class. I’m really nervous about that ACL injury, though…

As far as the trend of getting a goalie in the top three rounds goes, let’s look no further than the 2013-14 NHL “wins” column. Eight of the top-10 were taken in the top three rounds, including five first-rounders (Varlamov, Fleury, Rask, Price, Lehtonen). You’d be right by saying that “wins” is a team stat, but you’d also be right by saying that good teams see the value of getting a goaltender who went relatively high in the draft.

So what about Tim Murray’s philosophy?

It’s fair to think that he heavily influenced the Ottawa Senators drafts between 2008-2013. In those six drafts, the Senators selected four goalies. Three of them arrived in the top three rounds - heir-apparent Robin Lehner (2009, 46th overall), recently-inked Chris Driedger (2012, 76th), and 6-foot-4 Swede Markus Hogberg (2013, 78th). The other, Francois Brassard, was a sixth-rounder in 2012 who is likely going back into the 2014 draft pool.

The Neuvirth acquisition may very well end up being a steal of a deal. Until we have as better sample size, though, I’m all for hedging the bet by using an early pick to get a big body with solid fundamentals.

For additional food for thought, read Adam Proteau’s recent column in The Hockey News. Safe to say, I couldn’t disagree more with his take. I'm not even saying that you need to take a goalie in the first round, but if one is among your top-30 prospects, take him where you have him rated. Simple as that. 

While many of the top guys were drafted high and then dealt, perhaps a stronger take from Proteau would involve advising teams to not be so quick in trading talented young netminders like Varlamov, Rask, Bishop, Lehtonen...

I highly doubt that Anaheim will be looking to deal John Gibson (2011, 39th overall) any time soon…and I highly doubt that St. Louis is looking to give Ryan Miller a long-term, high dollar deal....mostly because they have Jake Allen (2008, 34th overall) waiting in the wings.

You're rolling the dice if you keep taking goalies late.


It’s draft season, which means it’s time for the English language to take a serious beating. I’m hardly a master of language arts, but the countless tweets saying “I’m happy to be apart of the XXX organization” really is maddening. Instead of re-tweeting every single one that passes through my timeline, maybe I’ll donate a dollar to charity. Then again, I’d like to be able to be “a part” of a well-fed family…

Aside from the aforementioned Ullmark, three other Sabres prospects are up against the June 1 contract deadline. Brady Austin, Logan Nelson and Eric Locke* all posted decent seasons as 20-year olds, but may be better candidates for two-way minor league deals…(note: Locke was drafted in 2013, but just completed his overage junior season. It's basically decision time).

Speaking of Austin, he and fellow London Knights defender Nikita Zadorov will begin play at the 2014 Mastercard Memorial Cup Fri., May 16 versus the yet-to-be determined QMJHL champion. Zadorov was forced to miss a practice last week after he was clipped by a skate and received a few stitches, but the injury was not close to serious. All Memorial Cup games will be televised on NHL Network available for live stream via the tournament website...

The Guelph Storm has already claimed one Memorial Cup spot with a victory over the North Bay Battalion in the OHL Championship series. The WHL and QMJHL representatives are yet to be determined with each league championship going to Game Seven. The Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings will settle the WHL title  Monday evening in Portland. On Tuesday, the Val d’Or Foreurs will visit the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in a winner takes all contest.

In case you missed it, I’ve taken part in some podcasts with Matthew Coller of WGR 550 AM over the past couple of weeks, and more will come as the draft approaches. The first two covered the Rochester Americans first round playoff loss to Chicago. To summarize: Joel Armia elevated his game to another level, while Mikhail Grigorenko showed signs of encouragement with solid two-way play on the farm. Fan expectations are high for both of these players, but I can’t stress enough the need for patience as they build up their games. Tim Schaller, to me, looks like a solid candidate for the Sabres’ fourth line – possibly as early as next season.

Once the draft and development camp are complete we can start talking about national summer evaluation camps in preparation for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Names that will likely take part include Justin Bailey, J.T. Compher, Connor Hurley, and Hudson Fasching for Team USA, and Nick Baptiste for Canada. Not to mention, whoever the Sabres select at #2 (if they keep the pick, of course) will also be in a camp. Providence College defenseman Anthony Florentino and Harvard forward Sean Malone should be seen as bubble players for the USA NJEC in Lake Placid.

Lastly, Niagara University defenseman Vincent Muto has been invited to participate in the Montreal Canadiens development camp this summer. Rick Dudley was around Dwyer Arena quite a bit last season and came away impressed with the 21-year old USHL product. Muto, a resident of Niagara Falls, NY,  posted five goals and 19 points in 37 games as a freshman.