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Inside the Sabres: If not Robin Lehner, then who?

It appears the goodbye for Robin Lehner was unlike the rest of his time in Buffalo: quiet.

As the buzzer sounded to end the second period March 29, Lehner left the crease and joined the rest of the Sabres on the way to the dressing room. He never came back. His lower-body injury had flared up, and the goaltender didn't make another appearance in the room or at practice.

It was a discreet departure for one of the most talkative and talked-about Sabres. His 2015 arrival was dissected because then-General Manager Tim Murray traded a first-round pick for a concussed, unproven goalie. A serious ankle sprain just 27 minutes into Lehner's Buffalo career added to the chatter.

From there, Lehner analyzed what his team did well and poorly, explained the crippling effects of concussions, wore a Donald Trump tribute mask, called for acceptance of Middle Eastern people and Muslims, allowed shootout goals, stopped pucks, honored a fallen Buffalo police officer and was ready to unleash fury during a scrum in Columbus.

Personal note: Along the way, Lehner joined Brian Campbell and Jay McKee as my favorite Sabres to cover during the past 16 seasons. Whether it was chatting about politics, family, player-media coexistence or any other topic, he was engaging, enlightening, honest and sincere.

It appears those chats are over. Lehner is set to become a restricted free agent, and General Manager Jason Botterill hardly made it sound like a contract was coming.

"We're very excited about Linus Ullmark being one of our two goalies next year, and we'll make a decision in the next couple months what will be the other goalie in that situation," Botterill said.

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So if not Lehner, who? There are options, though none will turn the Sabres from laughingstock to contender.

The UFAs

The easiest way to find a creasemate for Ullmark is free agency. There are nine netminders of note whose contracts are expiring. Here they are in order of save percentage:

* Carter Hutton, St. Louis – Previously an unheralded journeyman, the 32-year-old wrestled the crease from Jake Allen at midseason and went 17-7-3 with a .931 save percentage in 32 appearances.

During the previous five seasons with Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis, Hutton was 33-24-12 with a .910 save percentage. He had a cap hit of $1.125 million this year.

* Anton Khudobin, Boston – Another journeyman, Khudobin has proved himself as a dependable backup. The 31-year-old went 16-6-7 with a .913 save percentage this season.

During two stints with Boston and stops in Minnesota, Carolina and Anaheim, Khudobin has posted a 67-51-16 record and .915 save percentage. He had a cap hit of $1.2 million.

* Jonathan Bernier, Colorado – While sharing the crease with Semyon Varlamov, the 29-year-old Bernier went 19-13-3 with a .913 save percentage. The numbers are in line with his career stats.

A first-round pick of Los Angeles in 2006, Bernier has a 128-108-30 record and .914 save percentage while playing for the Kings, Toronto, Anaheim and Colorado. He made $2.75 million.

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* Kari Lehtonen, Dallas – The 32-year-old has ridden a roller coaster from No. 2 overall draft pick to budding star to mediocre to terrible and back to mediocre. He was 15-14-3 for the Stars this season with a .912 save percentage.

Lehtonen is 310-233-67 with a .912 save percentage in a 14-year career spent with Atlanta and Dallas. He is finishing a five-year deal that had a cap hit of $5.9 million.

* Harri Säteri, Florida – The 28-year-old returned to North America after spending three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. He was 4-4 with a .911 save percentage in his first nine NHL appearances.

Säteri showed more in the American Hockey League. He was 14-9-3 with a .927 save percentage that ranked third among AHL netminders. Säteri also played in the AHL from 2010 to 2014 but never went to the crease for San Jose. He made $750,000 this year.

* Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders – A Sabre for six days back in 2014, Halak played the most games among pending unrestricted free agents. He was 20-26-6 with a .908 save percentage. It was a dip for the 32-year-old.

Halak entered the year with a 212-124-42 record and .917 save percentage in 11 seasons with Montreal, St. Louis, Washington and New York. He had a cap hit of $4.5 million.

* Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg – Buried behind Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck and well-paid veteran Steve Mason on the Jets' depth chart, Hutchinson excelled in the AHL. He went 17-5-4 with a .935 save percentage in 26 appearances.

The 28-year-old has played in 102 games for the Jets during the past five seasons, posting a .910 save percentage and 43-39-11 record. He had a cap hit of $1.15 million this year.

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* Cam Ward, Carolina – Though it's hard to imagine him playing anywhere but Carolina, Ward enters the offseason without a contract. Slated to be the backup to Scott Darling, Ward was the better goalie with a 23-14-4 record and .906 save percentage.

The 34-year-old, who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 after eliminating the Sabres in the Eastern Conference final, made $3.3 million.

* Chad Johnson, Buffalo – It appears neither side is interested in continuing the partnership, but Johnson could fill the role of veteran mentor for Ullmark. The 31-year-old sported an unsightly .891 save percentage with a 10-16-3 record, but his career numbers entering the season (68-45-12, .915) helped him earn a $2.5 million deal.

The Prospects

It would take a trade to pry these two goaltenders loose, but their crowded crease conditions could make it possible.

* Garret Sparks, Toronto – The 24-year-old led the AHL with a .936 save percentage, which contributed to a sparkling 31-9-2 record. In 2016-17, he was 21-9-5 with a .922 save percentage for the Marlies.

Sparks hasn't appeared in the NHL since 2015-16. He went 6-9-1 for the Maple Leafs with a .893 save percentage. He has one year remaining on a contract that pays $675,000 annually, but it turns into a one-way deal, according to CapFriendly.com.

The Leafs will still have Frederik Andersen (signed through 2021) and Curtis McElhinney under contract next year, while former Colorado starter Calvin Pickard is also in the organization. That's a lot of goalies, so Toronto may be inclined to listen to offers.

* Thatcher Demko, Vancouver – It's unlikely the Canucks would move Demko, whom they drafted in the second round in 2014. But Vancouver has Jacob Markstrom signed through 2020 and Anders Nilsson under contract for $2.5 million next season, and Demko is knocking on the NHL door.

The 22-year-old went 25-13-7 in the AHL with a .922 save percentage. The second-year pro has one more season on his entry-level deal that pays the rookie maximum of $925,000.

Other goaltenders will become available via trade this offseason. They probably won't talk as much – or be talked about as much – as Lehner.

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