It’s early but the Buffalo Sabres may have found themselves a diamond in the rough in goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Buffalo Sabres Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Playing Like a Starter
Recently called up goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, has been making a name for himself as the Buffalo Sabres new number-one starter.
Over five starts this year, Ukko-Pekka has been the model of consistency, allowing only two goals in every start. Luukkonen has only two wins to show for his efforts (which shows just how poor the Buffalo offence has been) but has given his team a chance in every game.
The Sabres sure haven’t made it easy on their new netminder either. Luukkonen has had his work cut out for him, facing an average of 32 shots per night. But the former second-round pick of the 2017 NHL draft has been up for the task each and every night.
And he’s done it against some of the best offences in the league. He’s frustrated the Minnesota Wild (second-ranked goals-for per game), Washington Capitals (fifth), Anaheim Ducks (11th), Winnipeg Jets (15th), and the New York Rangers (17th).
It’s a hot start, and odds are against him to maintain a goals-against-average in the low twos, just strictly based on the number of shots and quality scoring chances he’s being exposed to. But goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen looks up for the task in his second call up with the club.
Goaltending Carousel Begins in Buffalo
Not much has gone right in terms of goaltending for the Buffalo Sabres this season. After a nice start by Craig Anderson, the 40-year-old veteran suffered an upper-body injury. There’s still no timetable for his return, but was still listed as month-to-month in December. Anderson helped get the Sabres off to a surprising start with a 4-2 record and 2.50 goals-against-average.
Once Anderson went down though, the backups for Buffalo failed to produce any quality starts and what once looked like a promising start for the Sabres, quickly faded away as they managed to win a paltry three games in their next 15.
After Anderson went down, the Sabres turned to backup Dustin Tokarski. Tokarski, who was drafted 122nd overall in 2008, has failed to carve out a regular role in the NHL. The AHL veteran has been used sparingly in emergency call up situations, but was tasked with carrying the bulk of the load while management looked for a capable backup.
Tokarski went 4-5-3 with a 3.28 GAA and .903 save percentage.
While injuries and poor performances piled up in the Buffalo crease, management had a carousel of goalies enter the fray. Aaron Dell (4.52 GAA .872 SV%) failed to register a win in seven games. And Malcolm Subban (4.79 GAA .877 SV%) did nothing to sway critics that he deserves a regular role in the NHL.
Goaltending Woes Have Given Luukkonen Unexpected Call-Up
So with four goaltenders used, a mountain of losses piling up, and no real place to turn, Buffalo decided to call up Rochester American’s goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Luukkonen made his big league debut last season for Buffalo, going 1-3 with a 3.88 GAA and .906 SV%. And he had a 3.88 GAA and .888 SV% over 12 appearances in the AHL. So not much was expected from the Finnish netminder. In fact, coach Don Granato wasn’t even sure he’d start Luukkonen over Dell when he first came up.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how I feel then,” Granato said. “… he hasn’t been with us for three days…he hasn’t had the practice time. So not sure on that yet…”
In the end, Granato elected to go with Luukkonen, and he hasn’t looked back.
The Future of the Crease is Luukkonnen’s to Lose
Despite not recording a win in his first three starts, Ukko-Pekka gave the Sabres their first string of quality starts in over two months.
But Luukkonen was determined to prove his development was coming along and was ready to step in whenever Granato gave him the nod.
“I think it’s mostly about confidence,” Luukkonen said about the evolution of his season to date. “You know that you can play, you know that you’re a really good goalie and you should be able to play at a high level. It comes down to confidence and the mental side. That’s the biggest thing. Find that you know you can be there every night and you can play well.“
Luukkonen sure has put any doubts to bed so far. It may be a small sample size but he has vastly outplayed his competition and surely has earned a jump up the goaltending depth chart in Buffalo.
With reports pointing towards Tokarski returning to the AHL after he clears Covid-Protocols, it sure looks like Luukkonen has, deservedly, earned himself a longer look with the big club.
Malcolm Subban will stay on as a backup but when Anderson can return from injury, the 40-year old will slot into a backup role. With Luukkonen starting and Anderson backing him up, this would be an ideal tandem for the Sabres. It’s not practical to expect Anderson to take the bulk of the starts. Anderson is a much more effective option coming off the bench every fourth game or so. This could pave the way for very productive starts out of their netminders.
Buffalo is in the midst of a very long rebuild but should Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen prove to be the real deal, it will greatly speed up the rebuild process for a team so desperate to be relevant in the playoffs again.