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Cup winner Fucale catches Sabres’ eye

NEW YORK – The Buffalo Sabres just signed Jhonas Enroth to a two-year deal, acquired Matt Hackett from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville trade, watched Andrey Makarov star for Saskatoon and play well in the Memorial Cup, and have drafted Nathan Lieuwen and Linus Ullmark in the sixth round the last two years.

So what about another goaltender today in the NHL Entry Draft? And in the first round, no less?

At first glance, it may seem unlikely whether the Sabres trade Ryan Miller or keep him past today. But the team is known to be very interested in Halifax’s Zach Fucale, the top-rated goaltender in the draft by NHL Central Scouting.

Kevin Devine, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, said last week one of the team’s draft picks today will be a netminder. But he surprised media assembled for the draft preview news conference when he said “maybe even a goaltender comes into it” when talking about the No. 16 overall pick, the Sabres’ second in the first round.

That can only mean Fucale, the 18-year-old who backstopped Halifax to the Memorial Cup. How curious are the Sabres about Fucale? He told The News at Friday’s draft prospects luncheon in Weehawken, N.J., that the only two teams that brought him in for private combine workouts were the Sabres and Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres haven’t spent a first-rounder on a goalie since taking Mika Norenen in 1997.

“I don’t have to look very hard,” Fucale said when asked if he’s pondered Buffalo’s fluid situation in goal. “With all the information we’re exposed to these days, it’s not too complicated. Especially for goalies. We know the teams that might need one but so many things can change on draft day that you have to just wait.”

Fucale is a 6-foot-1, 181-pound butterfly specialist. He went 45-5-3 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .909 save percentage for Halifax. In the postseason, he was 16-1, 2.02, .918. The only loss came to Saskatoon and Makarov.

“Fucale is just grace under fire, under pressure,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s Central Scouting director. “I’ve never seen him be on an emotional roller coaster in a game. He’s got real quick instincts and quick recovery on the play and his reflexes are outstanding. It’s just that composure that he has, that mental toughness that’s so important for a goaltender.”

“He’s a big goalie, pretty skinny off the ice but not many holes on it,” said Halifax teammate Jonathan Drouin, who will get selected in the top four today. “He’s not rushing or stressing about anything. I never saw him lose focus. He’s always in his bubble and he’s a really calm goalie.”

Fucale said he tries to stay quiet in the crease and simplify the game with his puck-tracking skills so he’s in position to make saves.

“Your task is stopping the puck. You focus on that task,” he said. “You don’t make it complicated as a goalie. You go day by day and let your skills develop.”

Teams ahead of the Sabres who figure to have some interest in Fucale as well include New Jersey at No. 9 (looking to have a prospect behind Martin Brodeur), Philadelphia at No. 11 and the New York Islanders at No. 15.

Fucale said practice was as important to him as games, given the fact he was going against Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon, the likely No. 1 pick today by Colorado, during every workout.

“For me, there were some days where it was kind of boring because it was basically impossible to stop them,” he said. “Then there were some days it would be really challenging and a lot of fun.”

“He acts like a 30-year-old man in the net,” said MacKinnon. “Definitely a very mature guy. He’s aware of what kind of goalie he is. He wants composure to be a strength of his game.”

And about Fucale’s claim that practice was impossible at times?

“I think he’s exaggerating a little bit,” said MacKinnon. “It was very tough to score on him. Jon and I have to do shootouts after every drill. He was always very good on that.”