VANCOUVER – There were no audible cheers from the Rogers Arena crowd when Buffalo Sabres director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski announced his third-round draft choice Saturday.
Their selection, goalie Erik Portillo, did not attend the NHL draft. He wasn’t even among the 12 goalies ranked by NHL Central Scouting. Yet, Sabres brass used the third of their six picks on the 6-foot-6-inch, 18-year-old Swede who was not selected when he was draft eligible one year earlier.
In doing so, the Sabres possibly passed on forwards or defensemen who could have a quicker path to playing professionally in North America. To Botterill and his staff, that’s a small price to pay.
Though they have one of the sport’s top drafted prospect goalies under contract and headed to Rochester next season, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the Sabres continue to add high-upside players at the position in search of a franchise player.
“Without a doubt we were happy,” Botterill said of selecting Portillo. “As you know, in the goalie market it’s always the question when do you take them? Where do you take them? We understand with Erik he’s a longer-term project for sure.”
Botterill had information about Portillo that may have been unavailable to others.
Portillo’s junior club Frolunda produced Rasmus Dahlin and he's committed to play at the University of Michigan, the alma mater of Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill. The Sabres have tracked Portillo for the past two years, the second of which included remarkable improvement.
Portillo, who will turn 19 in September, had a 1.99 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 26 regular-season games in 2018-19, followed by a .933 save percentage in four playoff games. He’s expected to spend next season with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League before joining the Wolverines for 2020-21.
That development plan should allow Portillo as many as five years to develop – physically and technically – in the USHL and NCAA before beginning his professional career with the Sabres.
"There are two reasons goalies take longer to develop but the first is the position is extremely advanced," said Dubuque General Manager Kalle Larsson, who selected Portillo fifth overall in the USHL draft this spring. "There are so few jobs for the positions at the professional level. That's why you see NHL goalies having to play in the AHL. ... It's more competitive, so the development process is going to take longer.
"Second, it takes longer for goalies to adjust to each new level and the position deals so much with technique. When they move to each new level it takes more time. You can't rush development. Time helps everybody. The college path gives him more time. The Sabres will have him until he’s 23 or 24 before they have to sign him. That’s a huge benefit."
The Sabres selecting a goalie, particularly with a high draft pick, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though Luukkonen had a breakout year that included a gold medal at world juniors, he underwent double-hip surgery this offseason, which will prevent him from being ready for the start of this season.
Botterill and his assistant general manager, Randy Sexton, deployed a similar strategy during their tenure in Pittsburgh. The Penguins selected four goalies during a five-year span from 2012-16, including two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray in the third round. Their last selection, Filip Gustavsson, was part of the trade package that landed them center Derick Brassard in February 2018.
Though goalies take longer to be NHL-ready, in some ways the volatility of their development is similar to forwards and defensemen. Injuries and regression are unpredictable. The Sabres aren't going to pass on players because they've drafted ones with a similar skill set in recent years. Despite selecting five defensemen in last year’s draft, the Sabres used this year’s second first-round pick, No. 31, on 17-year-old Ryan Johnson.
“With a 17-year-old draft you’re basing a lot on projection and as a result you might be projecting [Sabres defenseman prospect] Oskari Laaksonen to be something in four or five years but you can’t avoid drafting a guy with similar skill sets as Oskari because you think you already have one,” Sexton said prior to the draft. “There’s injury, illness, lack of development. You might have passed on are all good prospect that might end up being better than Oskari because you thought you already had one.”
Goaltending is suddenly an area of strength in the Sabres’ prospect pool. Luukkonen, a second-round pick in 2017, was the Ontario Hockey League’s most valuable player this past season and made his debut in Rochester’s regular-season finale. However, his surgery will prevent him from participating in this week’s development camp and the Amerks’ opener in October.
As a result, Botterill told reporters Saturday in Vancouver the Sabres will add a No. 3 goalie this offseason, someone who can start in the American Hockey League while providing depth behind Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark.
Jonas Johansson, a 23-year-old goalie drafted in the third round in 2014, is expected to contribute in Rochester next season but was limited to 32 games in 2018-19 because of a season-ending surgery, the details of which were not disclosed by the Sabres.
This will be Johansson’s third full season in North America, and he’s only appeared in 19 games with Rochester during that span, compared to 57 with Cincinnati of the ECHL.
“I think we have to be very patient with Luukkonen, with his injury,” Botterill said. “It’s a situation of you gotta put a time frame on when he's going to be ready, but also he's not going to have the strong summer of training. It is a little bit of a setback, but we had to look at the bigger picture for him for sure. We will look. We feel very comfortable with our two goalies in the National Hockey League. We have Jonas being in a situation where we think he can help out in Rochester, but yeah, we’ll certainly be looking to try to find technically a No. 3 goalie to add to the organization."
Prior to Luukkonen and Johansson, the Sabres drafted Cal Petersen (fifth round, 2013) and Ullmark (sixth round, 2012). Petersen chose not to sign with Buffalo and finally reached the NHL this past season, posting a .924 save percentage in 11 games for Los Angeles.
Ullmark, a restricted free agent this offseason, is currently penciled in as the Sabres’ backup for a second consecutive season after posting a .905 save percentage in 37 games.
Of the 15 goalies selected by the Sabres since Ryan Miller in 1999, only two have played in at least eight games with the team: Jhonas Enroth and Ullmark.
An inability to draft and develop a franchise goaltender has forced Sabres management to add through trades and free agency, most recently Hutton, who posted a .908 save percentage in a career-high 50 games last season. He is expected to be the starter again in 2019-20, and the Sabres hope a better defensive structure can make him a playoff-caliber goaltender. However, Hutton will turn 34 in December and is under contract for only two more seasons.
The future franchise goalie has yet to emerge, and the Sabres would likely prefer that role be filled by Ullmark or Luukkonen since their latest draftee is years away from the NHL.
“It gives us time to develop his game and being a big guy, being a little bit of a late bloomer physically, he had to catch up to himself,” Jankowski said of Portillo. “The way he played for his club team down the stretch in the playoffs and the steps he took as a goaltender we see a future there for him and that’s what we liked about him.”