Who is the Sabres Next Starting Goaltender? A Look at 13 Possible Options

Anti Niemmi Slides to stop a puck. Also pictured is Drew Stafford, a current member on the Winnipeg Jets. (Bill Wippert/Getty Images)

Anti Niemmi Slides to stop a puck. Also pictured is Drew Stafford, a current member on the Winnipeg Jets. (Bill Wippert/Getty Images)

Who will be the 2015-16 Sabres opening night goalie?

The Sabres roster is beginning to take shape after the results of the NHL Draft Lottery last weekend, but the one position that remains a mystery is goaltender. Who will be the Sabres opening night goalie next season? I have a compiled a list of 13 candidates and ranked them from least realistic to most realistic.

13.  Brian Elliott: Far-fetched, but if St. Louis wants to re-tool their team after another early playoff exit, Elliot could be on the move. Him and Murray have history together in Ottawa. He has above average size, just turned 30, a friendly cap hit, and has posted great numbers with the Blues. He may just be a product of the Blues terrific blue-line and a Ken Hitchcock coached team.

12.    Cam Talbot: King Henrik’s backup stepped in and did a whale of a job filling Lundqvist’s shoes down the stretch this year. In 53 career starts the 27 year old Talbot now has a lofty save % of .931. However the sample size is small, and I do not foresee the Rangers trying to move Talbot this summer. Talbot would be an intriguing acquisition for Buffalo, but I just don’t see it happening.

11.    Ryan Miller: What a story this would be and the fans would be thrilled. After two last place seasons of dreadful hockey it would only feel right to see Ryan Miller back in blue and gold. But before Sabre fans start dreaming about the ovation Miller would receive on opening night, I am going to pump the breaks. Eddie Lack is indeed the goalie of Vancouver’s future, but I do not believe Vancouver is going to move on from Miller so quickly. Miller was having a nice year before his injury, and I think he comes back as the starter next year as Lack continues to develop. HOWEVER, if Vancouver starts to fall apart next year and the Sabres are not pleased with their goaltending.. then maybe I could see a trade happening to reunite Buffalo and Ryan Miller. Also note that Miller turns 35 this summer (wow, where did the time go) and has two years remaining on his contract with Vancouver.

10. Craig Anderson: Ottawa has three NHL quality goalies on their roster, it seems inevitable that one will be the odd man out. Of the trio Anderson is the oldest, as he will be 34 at the start of next season, and carries the highest cap hit, at 4.2mil for the next three seasons. Anderson is experienced, and has been more than reliable since taking over as Ottawa’s goalie in 2011, but the problem has been staying healthy the past few seasons. With Anderson aging while already having issues staying healthy, I am betting that Ottawa is looking to ship him and his contract to another organization this summer. For Buffalo, the cost would be low and it could pay off, but at the same time they might just end up stuck with a 4.2mil cap hit 2 years from now. Ottawa has cap issues forthcoming and will try hard to sell Anderson this summer. If they can’t… well scroll down…

9. Andrew Hammond: The Hamburglar came out of nowhere this season and propelled Ottawa to the postseason on an improbable late season run. Hammond went 20-1-2 this year with a .941 save % and a GAA of 1.79. An unreal stat line with many of those games being playoff-like magnitude. The 27 year old is now an unrestricted free agent and Ottawa is in a tricky spot. Do they resign him for his heroics or let him walk already having Anderson and Lehner under contract. It is hard to gauge Hammond’s value with such a small sample size and given the fact he was not on anyone’s radar three months ago. For Buffalo, this would be a risky signing to depend on Hammond as a number one goalie. I believe Murray stays away, although I am very interested to see what happens with Hammond this off-season.

8. Martin Jones: This one here is very interesting. Martin Jones is a 25 year old goaltender currently backing up Jonathan Quick in LA. Jones took the league by storm last year as a rookie when he posted 12 wins and 4 shutouts with a save % of .934 and GAA of 1.81 in 18 starts. This year he came back down to earth statistically, but he is still a good prospect. Ideally LA would re-up Jones as Quick’s backup for another few years, but Jones is a RFA and the Kings are suffocating against the salary cap ceiling (Only four million in cap space, needing to add some depth and resign Toffoli, who is also an RFA). If Jones were to sign an offer sheet LA would struggle to match it. If a team really likes Jones, they could probably get him. If a GM gets creative we could see both Toffoli and Jones both offer sheeted to force LA’s hand (Just like San Jose did to Chicago with Niemi and Hjalmarsson in 2010). Ball is in Tim Murray’s court here.

7. Anders Linback: Is it possible that the man brought in to finish the tank, could end up sticking around as the starter next year? Who knows.. Lindback has the size that Murray loves and played well down the stretch for Buffalo. Once regarded as a high prospect of the Nashville Predators, the wheels fell off in Tampa Bay. The Lightning had traded two second round picks for Lindback to come in and be the starter, but in his tenure with the Lightning his save % dropped below .900 (an unacceptable level for an NHL goalie). After a solid stint to end this season, maybe he can revitalize his career however. It would make quite the story, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on it.

6. Jimmy Howard:

Credit: Gary Weipert - Associated Press

Credit: Gary Weipert - Associated Press

This is a juicy one, might be a stretch but maybe not. Petr Mrazek appears to be the goalie of the present and the future for the Red Wings. If this is the case it does not make much sense for Detroit to pay nearly five and a half million dollars over four more years to the 31-year old. Howard is experienced and has a career save % of .916. If the price is right, Tim Murray could make a trade to bring in the proven veteran netminder. (Note: I am not sure what affect hiring Mike Babcock would have on this).

5. Karri Ramo: Certainly the darkhorse of this list, but the free agent to be and the Sabres could be a great match for one another. Ramo has decent size at 6’2” and 205lbs, and has been a nice goaltender for Calgary the past two seasons. Ramo initially entered the league with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2006 and struggled heavily in his early years. In 2009 he joined the KHL and cleaned up his game as he matured. After posting impressive numbers in Russia, he rejoined the NHL in at the start of the 2013-14 season, and has posted a record of 31-24-7 with a save % of .911 since then with the Flames. Ramo turns 29 in July, and will be looking for a starting job on the free agency market. Buffalo could entice him with a two or three year deal worth about 3.5mil a season.

4. Michal Neuvirth: Here is an option we are familiar with. Neuvirth played well in his brief stint with the Sabres and Tim Murray might be interested in bringing him back. Neuvirth has a respectable career save % of .912 but has never truly been a number one goaltender. In Washington and Buffalo he was always splitting time with someone else. If given the minutes he could be the guy for the Sabres. The terms to sign the 27 year old would by no means break the bank, Neuvirth could end up a long term, cap friendly answer in net.

3. Robin Lehner: Ottawa comes up for the 3rd time on this list. I am a big Robin Lehner fan as is Tim Murray. At 6’4” 220lbs, Lehner fits the Murray mold and takes up a lot of the net. Murray and the Ottawa Senators drafted the big Swede in the second round of the 2009 NHL Draft and have witnessed him enjoy some success since then. Lehner has been dominant in the AHL at times, and led the Binghamton Senators to a Calder Cup Championship in 2011. Lehner has shown signs of promise in the NHL, but has never truly had the chance to be a number one goalie. With Craig Anderson under contract, along with the emergence of Andrew Hammond, perhaps the 23 year old Lehner could be the odd man out in Ottawa. If so, look for Murray to try to acquire the goalie he once drafted. Lehner is under contract for two more seasons at 2.225 mil before becoming an RFA and is a very good prospect (many in Ottawa regard him as the goalie of the future), it would take a very good return to lure him away from Ottawa. However, if Hammond re-signs and Anderson stays put, it could be done. Part of me just feels that Lehner is Murray’s guy, and that he is to make this happen. I am all for Tim Murray going for Lehner. Lehner is still young at age 23 and ready to take the next step, he has the realistic potential of blossoming into a franchise goalie. Despite the upside on Lehner, Murray doesn’t have to take this trade route as there are still a couple better options in free agency that won’t require giving away assets.

2. Devan Dubnyk: I believe Tim Murray is going to be attracted to the idea of bringing in Devan Dubnyk, he loves big goalies and Dubnyk comes in at 6’6” and 210lbs. For those of who don’t know Dubnyk’s story here is the reader’s digest version… Drafted in the first round by Edmonton in 2004 and is anointed the ‘goalie of the future’, shows flashes but is inconsistent for years, becomes almost a punchline, team finally gives up on him last season, comes out of nowhere this season and puts up Vezina quality numbers briefly with the Coyotes and primarily with the Wild, is now in the MVP discussion for saving Minnesota’s season.

Dubnyk turns 29 in a few weeks and is set to become a free agent this summer and his worth is very much a mystery. I am sure Minnesota would love to keep him but the price has to be right because of their cap situation. Does Tim Murray break the bank and believe that the ‘new Devan Dubnyk’ is here to stay? I think he does. It is a risk that Buffalo can afford to take. The Sabres have the flexibility to offer him a short term contract with big money as a sort of ‘prove it’ deal. If it works out, fabulous! If not we have the cap space to fool around with. Hypothetically, a two-year 11mil (5.5mil avg) I think gets Dubnyk to Buffalo. A risky signing to depend on Dubnyk as your number one, but if it pays off the Sabres are in great shape. Minnesota will try hard to resign Dubnyk before the start of free agency.

1. Antti Niemi: The former Shark/Blackhawk is at the top of this year’s free agent class. With a career save % of .916 and a Stanley Cup on his resume, he is more than qualified to tend the Sabres net. What sets him apart as the most realistic option on this list is the fact that he is a free agent, meaning Buffalo does not have to trade any assets, and most importantly he is proven, reliable, and consistent. You know what you are getting with Antti Niemi. He is not going to set the world on fire, but you will get above average goaltending night in night out. I do not anticipate his demand being crazy high and Buffalo can outbid any other suitors with both their cap space and Pegula’s wallet. Last year Jonas Hiller got 2yrs 9mil (4.5avg) on the open market when he left Anaheim for Calgary. Look for Niemi to get similar terms. He turns 32 in August, and would be a nice bridge for an eventual ‘goalie of the future’. My money is on Antti Niemi being the Buffalo Sabres starting goaltender on opening night of the 2015-16 NHL season.  

Honorable mention but not really: Nicklas Svedberg, Malcolm Subban, Jhonas Enroth, and Chad Johnson.