March 28, 2023

The Buffalo Sabres’ strong start to this season is long gone, and so is the optimism that surrounded it. After playing to a 7-3-0 record through their first 10 games, the Sabres have suddenly dropped seven straight and now find themselves ranked seventh in the Atlantic Division. To make matters worse, goaltender Eric Comrie was lost to a lower-body injury in the second period of Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators after Mathieu Joseph inadvertently barreled into him in the crease.

As a result, the Sabres recalled top goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Rochester Americans, and he’ll likely take over the starting duties. Though things look bleak at the moment, this could end up being the break both he and the Sabres have been waiting for.

Sabres Desperate for Help in Net

Though an injury to a top goaltender is never news you want to hear, it’s not as if Comrie had been invaluable to this point. The 27-year-old has a 4-7-0 record with a 3.62 goals-against average (GAA) and a .887 save percentage (SV%) through 11 starts. His struggles aren’t entirely to blame for the Sabres’ sudden plummet (the team’s defense and two-way play have been laughable), but it’s a large reason why. Buffalo knew it was rolling the dice when he was signed as a free agent over the summer, but more was expected from him.

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Comrie’s stat line isn’t atrocious, but it’s far from great, and his play has been worse than the numbers suggest. The Sabres have not played well during their seven-game slide, but their goaltending hasn’t bailed them out much. Craig Anderson has played very well in his backup role, but at 41, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to handle any more than that.

Buffalo’s season has been hampered by subpar performances in net, and if the team wants to prevent this slide from becoming a tailspin, something has to change, and as unfortunate as it is for Comrie, his injury could give the team an opening to address the issue.

Luukkonen Looks Ready for the Big Time

For the third time in as many seasons, injuries have forced the Sabres to bring the highly-touted youngster into the mix. Since he was selected by Buffalo 54th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft (when he was considered the top European goaltender), Luukkonen has been hailed as the team’s future in that department.

His talent and potential are undeniable, but numerous injuries and the pandemic have greatly slowed his development. Many have also argued that he’s gone as far as he can in the minor leagues, and the team is hindering him by keeping him there. But the Sabres opted to not change course, and he was eventually returned to the AHL last season despite posting a 2.74 GAA in nine games.

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This time could prove different because if there was ever an opening for the 23-year-old, it’s now. After posting a 6-3-0 record with a 3.07 GAA and .898 SV% with the Americans this season, Luukkonen is ready for another shot, and his return coincides with the Sabres’ dire need of a boost. He has the chance to give Buffalo a shot in the arm and show that he’s worthy of a full-time spot.

The towering netminder’s durability has been his biggest question mark. He’s missed significant time with injuries dating back to his junior career, including hip surgery after the 2019-20 campaign. However, he was healthy throughout the summer, which allowed him to focus on a training regimen that significantly improved his physique. He entered this season far leaner with even greater speed and agility in the crease. The Americans have trusted him with a heavier workload, and he’s become the team’s no.1 goalie.

Though his AHL stats haven’t always been stellar, Luukkonen has a 3.08 GAA and .913 SV% through his first 13 NHL appearances, which is impressive, considering the team in front of him hasn’t exactly been formidable. The 6-foot-6 Finn has taken advantage of his brief call-ups to show that he’s indeed worthy of the hype surrounding him, and this time, he has the chance to truly make a name for himself.

Can Luukkonen Get Buffalo Back on the Rails?

Goaltending has been the Sabres’ biggest problem all season. Their hot start was mostly powered by offense, which has come back to earth dramatically over the past seven games, further exposing the issue. With Comrie not getting the job done and Anderson being too old to take the reigns, the team was caught between a rock and a hard place.

Related: Sabres’ Forward Depth Tested Amid Injuries

With no set timetable for Comrie’s return, Luukkonen has a golden opportunity in front of him. There’s a good chance he’ll get the nod from head coach Don Granato on Saturday, which happens to be the first matchup of the season with arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs. If he can provide a spark and help the Sabres find their way again, Luukkonen could earn himself a spot for the rest of the season. If not, it’ll likely be back to the AHL once again. The ball is in his court.

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