After some truly abysmal seasons and the departures of several top players, including face of the franchise Jack Eichel, it is nice to see the Buffalo Sabres not among the worst teams in the league with more than a month of the season complete. The Sabres sit at .500, which is of course not extraordinary, but is far better than most would have expected, especially when they share the same points percentage as the Pittsburgh Penguins and are ahead of recent Stanley Cup finalists in the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens.
One of the early highlights of the season has been in net, where a tandem that seemed like more of an afterthought than an action plan has performed well. 40-year-old Craig Anderson, pulled from an impending retirement, has a stellar .921 save percentage and 2.50 GAA that no one saw coming. Dustin Tokarski, after unseating Aaron Dell for the second NHL job, has been solid himself at .908 and 2.95. The duo have split starts and seem to be working well, even behind a young, inexperienced team.
With that being said, the reality is that the Sabres are not legitimate playoff contenders and they have no investment in either Anderson or Tokarski. Both veterans are on expiring minimum contracts and are likely to be gone next season. Meanwhile, down in the minors the organization is developing a future starter – or so they hope. The AHL’s Player of the Week is none other than Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen of the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ 2017 second-round pick. After a horrific October, Luukkonen has a .949 save percentage and 1.77 GAA in November as he is playing the best hockey of his young pro career. The gold medal-winning backstop of the 2019 Finnish World Junior team and the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year the same season, the pro level has not been as kind to Luukkonen thus far. He carries a career .887 save percentage and 3.35 GAA in the AHL. His play actually improved in four NHL appearances last season, posting a .906 save percentage, but his 3.88 GAA skewed the perception. However, Luukkonen’s recent improvement could be a sign that he finally has the pros figured out and is ready for the next level.
So when does UPL get his shot, not just as an emergency recall but as an actual member of the NHL roster? It seems like the time is now. Anderson is currently injured and Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News reports that he is expected to be out “at least another couple weeks”. Dell made his season debut this past weekend and struggled greatly, allowing five goals on just 26 shots. Beyond just his future value, Luukkonen seems like an immediate upgrade to Dell and with some opportunity could prove that he is already a better option than Tokarski or Anderson. The Sabres also have some reason to throw Luukkonen into the fire sooner rather than later. Though just 22, Luukonnen is already the elder statesmen of the pipeline. Buffalo has two other promising young goalie prospects currently playing in the NCAA: Michigan’s Erik Portillo, 21, and Northeastern’s Devon Levi, 19. Before either one decides to turn pro and start fighting for AHL starts and NHL call-ups, the Sabres should do their due diligence on UPL to see if he is indeed future starter material.
The Sabres deserve credit for exceeding expectations this season, as do Anderson and Tokarski as individuals. Yet, the team cannot lose the forest through the trees. Buffalo is still in a complete rebuild and getting a top young goalie like Luukkonen valuable NHL experience sooner rather than later, especially as he proves himself in the AHL, can only serve to benefit the organization long-term (and maybe even short-term too.)