Expectations? Linus Ullmark doesn’t see a need for them. Of course, he has good reason.
The Buffalo Sabres goaltender entered last season with the simple goals of recovering from hip surgery, easing into the organization and learning the North American style of play. An opening-game injury to Robin Lehner laid those plans to waste. Just seven games into the schedule, the rookie from Sweden was in an NHL net and on his way to appearing in 19 of Buffalo’s first 43 games.
Ullmark clearly never saw it coming, so he hasn’t bothered to anticipate what this year will bring.
“You never know what’s going to come up during the season,” Ullmark said Thursday. “Look at last year. I wasn’t prepared really to play 20 games, and all of a sudden I’m up competing against the best guys in the world. So I’m taking it day-by-day, just focusing on what I can do and what changes I can make in my game.”
Ullmark’s second season with Buffalo will start this weekend with the Sabres’ prospect tournament in HarborCenter. He and 23 teammates will face young hopefuls from the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in a round-robin tournament.
“It’s been a long summer unfortunately,” Ullmark said during physicals in First Niagara Center. “It’s good to be back with the boys, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been on the ice back home in Sweden, but it’s nothing compared to being here with your own team. That’s the best part of it.”
Being able to skate in Sweden should help the 23-year-old in Buffalo. After undergoing double hip surgery in April 2015, he arrived in town last year without the benefit of practice. It didn’t hamper him early as he went 7-10-2 with a .915 save percentage with Buffalo, but the adrenaline ran out in Rochester in January. He was just 10-16 with a .902 save percentage and 3.41 goals-against average for the Amerks.
“My NHL experience was great,” Ullmark said. “It started off pretty good in Rochester, too, but I didn’t have the preparations during the summer to keep my level during the whole season, which was a bummer. I got in a slump there, lost a lot of games, which takes a toll on your confidence.”
He feels good again and is eager to get the year off to a solid start. Surrounded by top Buffalo prospects Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching, Evan Rodrigues and Brendan Guhle, Ullmark should be comfortable in net against the Devils and Bruins.
Ullmark is also looking forward to his first look at Swedish countrymen Alex Nylander and Daniel Muzito-Bagenda. The Sabres drafted Nylander with the No. 8 overall pick in June’s draft. Muzito-Bagenda, who put up 20 goals as Nylander’s junior teammate with Mississauga, agreed to an AHL contract with the Amerks.
“They’re good players,” Ullmark said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how good they are.”
The Sabres will play the Devils on Saturday and the Bruins on Monday. New Jersey and Boston will meet Sunday night. All games are at 7 p.m., with tickets available for $10 at the First Niagara Center box office and Sabres.com.
After the prospects wrap up the tournament, they’ll prepare for next Friday’s opening of NHL training camp. Ullmark will compete for playing time with starter Robin Lehner, fellow prospect Jason Kasdorf and trade aquisition Anders Nilsson.
“I’m hoping that I can have a better overall season, not just the first half of it,” Ullmark said. “Just keep on rolling to the end and hopefully sit there with either a Calder Cup or a Stanley Cup.”
The Sabres announced their broadcast team will remain intact for the 2016-17 season, meaning Hall of Fame play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret will be back for his 45th season. He’ll again work a partial schedule, with Dan Dunleavy manning the mic in Jeanneret’s absence.
Rob Ray is back as the color analyst. Brian Duff remains the in-game host, with Brad May joining him before, during and after games.
The Sabres will have 74 games on MSG and eight on NBCSN.
The Sabres’ home will officially transition from First Niagara Center to KeyBank Center during a ceremony Monday. Most of the signage has been changed, and Sabres President Russ Brandon will announce other arena alterations during a 10 a.m. news conference.
Defenseman Tyson Strachan is back in the organization after agreeing to a one-year, minor-league deal with the Amerks. The 31-year-old played 46 games for the Sabres during the 2014-15 season. He spent last year in the Minnesota Wild organization, putting up one goal and 13 points in 67 games in the AHL.