Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark shared an objective. The goaltenders wanted to skate to the crease and prove they could stay there all year.
Based on the results, they figure to share something else next season: the net in Buffalo.
Though contracts need to be worked out and an expansion draft looms, the Sabres seem set in goal when they return to the ice. Lehner and Ullmark showed they could be competitive workhorses, erasing many of the questions that accompanied each netminder.
“It was nice to get out there, nice to play a lot of games, nice to go out and show you’re capable,” Lehner said. “I tried to give my team a chance to win games. I feel like on most nights I have.”
Lehner helped the Sabres post a team save percentage of .921, the fifth-best total in franchise history. He set a career high with 55 appearances, a necessity after ankle injuries limited him to 21 during his first season with Buffalo. He became a locker-room leader with a perceptive voice that was as commanding as his 6-foot-4, 239-pound frame.
“We’ve obviously got really good goaltending or we probably would have been in the Colorado area in terms of points,” said left wing Evander Kane, referring to the dismal showing by the Avalanche, who at 48 points had 30 fewer than Buffalo.
Lehner was above average in the NHL rankings. He was 12th in save percentage (.920) and eighth in short-handed save percentage (.891). According to Corsica.Hockey, Lehner was equally effective while the Sabres were leading (.936 save percentage, 13th in the NHL) or trailing (.928, 14th).
His goals-against average of 2.68 ranked just 31st, but that’s a product of his activity. He faced the third-most shots with 1,910, which worked out to 34 per 60 minutes. He had a 23-26-8 record.
“When everything clicks, it’s going to be easier for everyone to meet their personal goals,” the 25-year-old said. “But I feel I’ve been playing as good as I can and been competitive and saving most pucks every night.”
The goaltender admitted there were flaws in his game, and they were obvious.
Lehner was one of only two netminders who failed to make a save in a shootout. He went 0 for 8 on breakaways, losing all four appearances. (Nashville’s Jusse Saros was 0 for 2 in his only breakaway challenge.)
The Sabres made egregious defensive errors throughout the season, and Lehner had trouble bailing them out. He had a save percentage of .781 in “high danger” situations, according to DispellingVoodoo.com, below the league average of .812.
Better defense and fewer shots should mean improved numbers.
“We’ve all got to take responsibility for this season,” Lehner said. “We’re not where we want to be, so I’ve got to do better.”
Though Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill has no problem using Lehner as his starter next season, the sides need to make a deal. Lehner is a restricted free agent. He had a salary of $3.15 million this year, and he’ll expect a bump from that.
Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, who has comparable numbers, signed a five-year, $25 million deal last summer. Arizona’s Mike Smith ranks 15th on the goalie pay scale, and he has a cap hit of $5.67 million.
Ullmark is also a restricted free agent, but the 23-year-old shouldn’t expect more than a modest boost of his $892,500 salary. The biggest obstacle for the Sabres is keeping him in the organization.
Buffalo is expected to expose Ullmark to the Vegas Golden Knights in next month’s expansion draft. He showed with Rochester he’d be worth taking.
Ullmark led the American Hockey League in appearances (55), minutes played (3,201) and shots faced (1,678). On the nights he was off, the Amerks’ chances of winning plummeted. While Rochester was a paltry 32-41-3, Ullmark posted a 26-27-2 record with a .909 save percentage.
He was voted Rochester’s MVP and its most popular player.
“For me personally, of course it could have been better,” Ullmark said. “It could have been worse, too. I can look back on this season and just be happy with what I achieved but still not happy that we didn’t make the playoffs.”
This season allowed Ullmark to get his development back on track. He won goalie of the year trophies in Sweden in 2013 and 2014, and he was supposed to spend the 2015-16 season in Rochester getting accustomed to the North American game. Instead, Lehner went down in the season opener.
Ullmark spent the first half of the season with the Sabres, appearing in 20 games. He then stumbled to a forgettable finish with Rochester (10-16, .902 save percentage, 3.41 goals-against average).
This year, he was consistent from opening night to the season finale.
“I’ve never been real low during the season, which I’ve been really happy with,” Ullmark said. “I’m just happy that I got the opportunity last year and also that I had the opportunity to play all these games down here this year.”
Ullmark played in Buffalo’s last game, making 33 saves as the Sabres limped into the offseason with a 4-2 loss in Tampa Bay. Provided he’s not taken by Vegas, he’s ready to play alongside Lehner on a full-time basis.
“That’s my goal since I was a young kid was to play in The Show,” Ullmark said. “I would be very happy to get one of those spots. That’s what I’ve been struggling for the whole season to show that I would be one of those guys.”