Buffalo Sabres fans can’t catch a break.
Just when things were looking to get better with coveted UFA Taylor Hall in the fray, the Sabres finished dead last in the NHL. Then, Jack Eichel was shut down for the season due to injuries and Hall was traded to Boston.
And now they lose one of the best young goaltenders the team has had in the past decade.
Linus Ullmark is now a Boston Bruins, ending a six-year run with the club while serving as a starter for half the time. EVen when the going got tough, Ullmark found a way to be a solid rock for a team with no real direction. Even when the team’s top players were out, Ullmark did what he needed to do to hand the Sabres a few wins every so often.
And now he’s off to Boston.
While the loss will be noticeable for the Sabres – who now hold a 1-2 goalie tandem of 40-year-old Craig Anderson and career backup Aaron Dell, the Bruins find themselves in an interesting goalie situation of their own. After signing Ullmark to a four-year deal worth $5-million per season, the Bruins have made it clear they believe Ullmark is part of the team’s long-term plans – and perhaps Tuukka Rask is not.
The belief was that if Rask was to return to the NHL next season, it would be with the Bruins. But the team’s starting goalie for most of the past decade had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, with the expectation that he won’t return to action until January or February. The Bruins couldn’t wait that long for him to return, especially with the chance that he wouldn’t be able to perform anywhere near what he could before. Shoring up the goaltending situation was needed, but the long-term portion of Ullmark’s deal suggests Rask might not be coming back after all.
Rask became a UFA on Wednesday, with the 34-year-old having played his entire career in Beantown despite originally getting drafted by Toronto in 2005. Rask played in just 24 of the Bruins’ 56 regular-season games and didn’t look like himself during an early playoff exit. At this point in his career, especially with his injury, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Rask calls it a day early. Besides, with a Stanley Cup and a Vezina Trophy to his credit, his legacy is pretty much cemented at this point. Rask was one of the best goalies of his generation, and the stats are there to prove it.
But if this is the end, and the Bruins do fully intend on moving forward with Ullmark for the long run, this is an incredible opportunity for the new hire. Ullmark was one of the few bright spots for the Sabres, posting a 9-6-3 record with a respectable .917 save percentage before having his season cut short due to injury. Ullmark consistently found a way to steal games for a team that had no business doing so.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Ullmark’s 1.8 wins-above-replacement rating was just 0.1 shy of Rask’s, and Rask, again, is considered a top goalie. Of the 51 goalies that had at least 800 minutes of 5-on-5 play this past season, Ullmark finished fourth with a .937 save percentage and a 9.13 goals-saved above average. Granted, he did so with fewer starts than just about everyone in front of him, but that still shows that he outperformed on a bad team by quite a margin.
He did all of that while playing against one of the weakest defense cores in the league. Boston’s blueline has its flaws, but the team, overall, is much, much better than what Western New York had to offer. The Bruins should once again be a contender in the Eastern Conference and Ullmark is looking like a key piece of the team’s attempt to keep the contention window alive.
As I’ve written before, Jeremy Swayman is going to be a big part of the team’s future and already had a good run to close out the regular season. But he has just one season of pro hockey under his belt, so they’ll ease him into more starts as time goes on. The Bruins moved Daniel Vladar to Calgary to avoid losing him on waivers, which is a bummer, but something the Bruins knew would happen if they brought in a third goalie.
But as it stands, all signs point to Ullmark being Rask’s replacement. If it really is the end of Rask’s NHL career, he had one hell of a run. Considering how many tremendous years he gave the Bruins, it’s a surprise he never was able to bring the Bruins to a Cup himself. But his current health status means the Bruins had to move on, and Ullmark, after years of playing some outstanding hockey for a lousy team, is ready for the best chance of his career.
Let’s see if it pays off.