When most of the top free agents were signed by playoff contenders, and the game of goalie musical chairs appeared to be over, Buffalo Sabres Kevyn Adams was left standing on the sidelines with an empty net.
A difficult day for the rebuilding franchise was made worse late Wednesday afternoon when Adams learned that the goalie he hoped to retain, Linus Ullmark, rejected the Sabres’ contract offer in favor of joining the Atlantic Division’s Boston Bruins.
The Sabres' next steps were unclear until they found two replacements: veteran goalies Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell.
Anderson, a 40-year-old with 18 years of NHL experience, and Dell, a 32-year-old who started 32 games for San Jose in 2019-20, are joining Buffalo on 1-year contracts worth $750,000.
Two goalies were needed because the Sabres plan to have Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski in Rochester. There was plenty of money to spend – CapFriendly.com projects Buffalo with a league-high $31.766 million in cap space – but Adams was unable to sell top free agents on the idea of being part of a rebuild. Even Ullmark wasn’t willing to stick around unless the Sabres met his asking price.
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The final contract for Ullmark in Boston, where he’s expected to man the Bruins’ net in place of the injured Tuukka Rask: four years with a $5 million annual salary cap hit. The Sabres bet big on Ullmark, opting to not trade the 27-year-old at the deadline in April with the hope that both sides could use the additional time to work on a contract extension.
“You know what, ever since we started the whole process, it felt right,” Ullmark told the Boston media on a conference call. “We had our conversations going into the summer with Buffalo. It didn’t work out in the end and when Boston came knocking on my door, I should say, or calling on the phone, and they told us about the situation, and they were happy to sign me, we started that process. The longer the day went by, it just felt better and better. Very excited about what’s to come.”
The chaotic free-agency frenzy included the relocation of 17 NHL goalies: Anderson, Dell, Ullmark, Philipp Grubauer (Seattle), Darcy Kuemper (Colorado), Petr Mrazek (Toronto), Jonathan Bernier (New Jersey), Antti Raanta (Carolina), Frederick Andersen (Carolina), Laurent Brossoit (Vegas), Braden Holtby (Dallas), Brian Elliott (Tampa Bay), James Reimer (San Jose), David Rittich (Nashville), Dan Vladar (Calgary), Vitek Vanecek (Washington) and former Sabre Carter Hutton (Arizona).
Anderson is a longtime foe of the Sabres, having spent 10 years with the Ottawa Senators. Across 652 regular-season games, Anderson has logged a .913 save percentage and 2.84 goals-against average. He was in goal for 34 games with the Senators in 2019-20 before joining the Capitals last season, when he appeared in only four games and spent most of the year on the taxi squad. In 34 career games against Buffalo, Anderson has a .928 save percentage and 20-10-2 record.
Dell only appeared in seven games with the New Jersey Devils last season, struggling to the tune of an .857 save percentage. The bulk of his NHL work has been with San Jose, where he had a .907 save percentage in 33 games, including 30 starts, in 2019-20. He's appeared in 114 games across five years in the league. Dell's contract is a two-way deal, meaning he can be sent to Rochester without having to pass through waivers. This allows the Sabres to use Dell or Tokarski in Buffalo.
Last season, Butcher averaged 19:02 of ice time across 23 games, finishing with one goal and 11 points. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Butcher ranked second among all Devils defensemen in power-play ice time and fourth in blocked shots.
Ullmark’s departure was one of two significant blows delivered to Adams’ plan for the Sabres, as defenseman Jake McCabe signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sabres also lost four players from their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester: C.J. Smith (Carolina), Jean-Sebastien Dea (Montreal), Remi Elie (Tampa Bay) and Dalton Smith (Colorado). Also, former Sabres defenseman Matt Irwin signed a two-way contract with Washington.
It wasn’t all bad news in Buffalo.
All was quiet on the Sabres’ front until they signed speedy, experienced winger Vinnie Hinostroza to a one-year, $1.05 million contract. Hinostroza, a 27-year-old who played under Sabres coach Don Granato in Chicago, is a middle- or bottom-six forward who can contribute on the power play or the penalty kill. He's coming off a season in which he totaled four goals and 12 points while averaging 12:16 of ice time across 26 games between Florida and Chicago. He has played six seasons in the NHL, scoring a career-high 16 goals with Arizona in 2018-19.
Buffalo also targeted an interesting buy-low candidate by acquiring defenseman Will Butcher and a 2022 fifth-round draft choice from the New Jersey Devils for future considerations. Butcher, 26, was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team for the 2017-18 season and has appeared in 238 games across four years with the Devils. He can block shots, kill penalties and averaged 19:02 of ice time last season. Butcher is under contract for one more season and the Devils retained $1 million of his $3.733 million salary, a source told The Buffalo News.
Then came the return of defenseman Mark Pysyk, a first-round draft choice of the Sabres in 2010 who had a bounce-back season with the Dallas Stars in 2020-21. Pysyk, 29, has 25 goals and 92 points across 453 games in the NHL. His right shot addresses an area of need for Buffalo after it lost Will Borgen (Seattle) and Rasmus Ristolainen (Philadelphia). The Sabres also made depth signings for Rochester with forward Sean Malone, a West Seneca native, and defensemen Brandon Davidson and Jimmy Schuldt.
As their flurry of late-afternoon moves continue, the Buffalo Sabres have re-signed a familiar name in defenseman Mark Pysyk to a one-year con…
Yet, none of the additions can fill the 6-foot-4 void in net created by Ullmark’s departure.
Drafted in the sixth round by Buffalo in 2012, Ullmark developed into a reliable starter. Ullmark’s .916 save percentage in all situations since the start of 2019-20 is 13th among 40 goalies to see action in at least 40 games. Over the past two seasons, Ullmark has a 26-20-6 record and 2.67 goals-against average.
His .937 save percentage at 5-on-5 this season ranked fifth among goalies to appear in at least 20 games, and he finished the injury-shortened year with a 9-6-3 record. For context, the five other goalies used by the Sabres last season combined for a 6-28-4 record and .896 save percentage.
“He stops a lot of pucks, way above expected expected, especially in 5-on-5 situations," Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said of Ullmark. "Both our goalie coaches broke down where some of his deficiences are, there are fewer than lot of goaltenders.
"Overall, he's in the prime of his career. He has had a lot of experience. ... He knows what it's like to play against our team, and he was excited about being on the inside of the walls, playing for us."
Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams will have to look at external options to fill the club's …
The Sabres chose not to meet Ullmark’s asking price after he missed a combined 46 games because of separate lower-body injuries over the past two seasons. He suffered two lower-body ailments in 2020-21, including one on Feb. 25 that kept him out of the lineup for 15 games.
Ullmark was exceptional upon returning to the lineup, leading a struggling Sabres team to wins over Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and New Jersey. The Sabres kept Ullmark past the April 12 trade deadline, only to have him suffer a season-ending injury the following game in Boston.
The Sabres spent nine years developing Ullmark, only for him to leave for a divisional opponent at the time he should be reaching his prime.
“I got drafted in 2012, so I’ve been in the organization for nine years,” Ullmark said of the Sabres. “Obviously, it’s a big part of my career. They were the ones who drafted me and groomed me into the player I am today and person I am today, so I have a lot of gratitude towards the organization and the way they’ve handled things and how they helped me, support me, especially last season with everything that went through my life. I got a lot of friendships. I have a lot of bonds that I have for life and I have a lot of gratitude towards everybody. Sabres fans, I love you guys from the bottom of my heart. You’ve always been great to me.”
The organization has a potential franchise goalie in Luukkonen, a 22-year-old who was impressive in four NHL games last season. But Luukkonen needs more time to develop in Rochester, as he has only 52 games of professional experience in North America. Teams typically want goalie prospects, particularly those from Europe, to appear in at least 100 pro games before a full-time NHL promotion. It’s more likely that Luukkonen will be ready to help the Sabres in 2022-23.
For now, the Sabres will count on Anderson and Dell to protect their net.