For once, Kevyn Adams has no crisis to manage.
There are no disconnects to fill or disgruntled players that might require a change of scenery. The coaching staff is in place and the bulk of the Buffalo Sabers roster will be back in the fall.
Adams’ 23 months as the club’s general manager has given little time for reflection. He’s been busy putting out fires, between Covid-19 outbreaks, a mid-season coaching change in March 2021 and breaking up the franchise’s old core, capped off by the transfer of Jack Eichel to the Goldens. Vegas Knights.
The Sabers’ new faces played at a 102-point pace over the final two months of the season. But one glaring question remains unanswered and will be among Adams’ priorities this summer.
Who will be this team’s goalies in the fall?
Craig Anderson, Dustin Tokarski and Malcolm Subban are unrestricted free agents. Injuries prevented Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from grabbing a full-time job at Buffalo. Devon Levi and Erik Portillo chose to return to college rather than sign with the Sabers.
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There is money to spend. The Sabers should have $43.1 million in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com. But Adams has no interest in adding anyone who could prevent any of the prospects — he mentioned Luukkonen and Levi, in particular — from emerging as a franchise goalie.
“In terms of the big picture, I’m really excited about the internal responses we have here within the organization for the future,” Adams said during his season-ending press conference on Tuesday. “We will look at different options but what we won’t do is do something to lock ourselves in or maybe we’ll be uncomfortable later on because we’re just doing something because we have to. now. We’re going to balance it all out.
Anderson, who turns 41 later this month, will reflect on his playing future in the coming weeks. He doesn’t know if he can physically withstand the rigors of an 82-game season. Most of his time at Buffalo was spent dealing with a neck injury that kept him out of the lineup for almost three months. Hip pain forced him out of the last three games of the season.
He reached 300 wins while enjoying success on and off the ice in what he called one of the most enjoyable seasons of his 19-year NHL career. His family will be his priority in deciding what to do next.
“I’ll leave out the details of our private conversation, but he knows exactly how we feel about him,” Adams said. “We owe him the respect to breathe, to spend some time with his family here and to be honest. That’s what we asked him to do. He and I will have conversations here after he’s had some time to figure it all out.
Luukkonen will have the opportunity to take the starting position. He was drafted in the second round in 2017 and played 60 games with the Rochester Americans. There has also been success in Buffalo, albeit in a limited sample size. Luukkonen has a .913 save percentage in 13 NHL games, including nine this season.
Luukkonen’s full-time arrival has been delayed by minor lower-body injuries over the past two seasons. He is unavailable for the Amerks playoff because he was injured in a violent collision when a Utica player crashed into the crease Friday. But the Sabers were encouraged by the way Luukkonen played in the final weeks of the season when Rochester finally had healthy AHL and NHL quality talent. He had a .921 save percentage in his last eight regular season appearances.
Luukkonen has the pedigree – he won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship and earned Ontario Hockey League MVP honors – and the talent to be the long-term solution. Consistency has been elusive.
The Sabers should add a veteran goaltender to work in tandem with Luukkonen. They’ll likely have to target an overlooked option in free agency — like they did with Anderson last summer — or acquire someone via trade.
Adams isn’t looking to land a franchise goaltender. He simply needs a bridge option and expressed excitement for what lies ahead, including Levi’s potential arrival next spring. The Sabers own the rights to Levi’s in the NHL until the summer of 2024.
Levi, 20, earned the NCAA’s top honor for a goalie last month after a record-breaking second season at Northeastern University.
“What he’s done in college hockey this year is pretty special and even in terms of my conversations with him and talking about where he’s at in his career, next steps,” Adams said. “The answer that I’m going to share with you, one of the reasons we said he wanted to go back to school is because he said, ‘I want to feel the pressure of being the best goalkeeper in the country and having expectations of me and working through that.’ It’s quite a mature answer for a young player. I think it says a lot about who he is.”
Here are some other takeaways from Adams’ press conference:
Ryan Johnson, a Sabers prospect drafted 31st overall in 2019, is considering returning to the University of Minnesota for his senior season, Adams said. Johnson, 20, is a left-handed defenseman who should probably start his professional career in Rochester. He was just 17 when he was selected by Buffalo and needed plenty of time to develop.
The Golden Gophers reached the Frozen Four last month and some of their best upperclassmen are returning next season. Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t sign with Buffalo by August 2023, but Adams hasn’t expressed concern.
“If they’re in an environment where we think they can improve, that’s what we’re looking at,” he said. “I know his coaching staff very well, I know the league he plays in and I think that will help him continue to improve if that is ultimately the final decision he makes.”
The plan changed to defense. Before the trade deadline, Adams told reporters that he wanted to acquire an experienced partner for Owen Power, either during the season or this summer. However, a lot has changed since the comment.
Power had success with Henri Jokiharju and proved at just 19 that he has a mature two-way game that will allow him to play the first four minutes without the help of a veteran. Mattias Samuelsson and Rasmus Dahlin formed a dynamic partnership in which they alternated between left and right side in the middle of a shift.
Adams’ focus shifted to the potential addition of someone who can play on the left or right side, rather than someone specifically for Power or Dahlin.
“More information on the right person that matches what we’re doing here that can be added to all parts of the culture and their on-ice game?” he said. “So, yeah, sure, we’ll look into that. But probably more comfortable with…that right kind of fit rather than it needs to be (for a specific player).”
Adams and coach Don Granato look set to name a captain in the fall. And while neither would provide details on who will wear the “C,” Adams’ response to a question about the captaincy might have revealed Kyle Okposo as the leading contender.
“Donny and I will continue to have a few conversations, but I can’t stress enough Kyle Okposo and what he means to this band,” Adams said. “Exit meetings during the season, every day, the conversations I would have with him or other people just to say what he did and what he means to this group. Were excited. We feel that we now have a very good group of leaders.
The Sabers will try to make responsible additions to the roster, but Adams said he expects to use his three first-round picks, one of which hinges on the Golden Knights not earning a top-10 selection. first in the lottery.
Adams talked about the importance of a strong lead pipeline. The Sabers could have two graduating NHL prospects next season — Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka — and it’s time to consider whether two more might not sign: Johnson and Portillo.
“We want to make sure we’re setting up this organization for long-term, sustainable success,” Adams said. “And some decisions that you can make in the short term that might push you a little further, that might come back to haunt you a little later.”
The biggest and most public crisis of Adams’ calendar year was the disagreement with Eichel and the former captain’s desire to leave Buffalo. The trade brought Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and a pair of draft picks to the Sabres. The early returns helped change the outlook for the franchise.
“Man, that’s exciting when I think about it,” Adams said. “And maybe that’s why people said you took a long time, we were patient, but that’s because in my opinion, we just couldn’t compromise on what we had to do for this franchise.”