For once, Kevyn Adams doesn’t have a crisis to manage.
There’s no disconnect to be bridged or disgruntled players that could require a change of scenery. The coaching staff is set, and the bulk of the Buffalo Sabers’ roster will return in the fall.
Adams’ 23 months as the club’s general manager have provided little time for reflection. He’s been busy putting out fires, between Covid-19 outbreaks, a midseason coaching change in March 2021 and breaking apart the franchise’s former core, capped by Jack Eichel’s move to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The new faces of the Sabers played on 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 have prevented Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from seizing a full-time job in Buffalo. Devon Levi and Erik Portillo opted to return to college rather than signing with the Sabers.
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There’s money to spend. The Sabers are projected to have $43.1 million of salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com. But Adams has no interest in adding someone who could block one of the prospects – he mentioned Luukkonen and Levi, specifically – from emerging as a franchise goaltender.
“In terms of the big picture, I’m really excited about the internal answers we have here within the organization for down the road,” Adams said during his end-of-season news conference Tuesday. “We’ll look at different options, but what we won’t do is do something to box ourselves out or that maybe we would be uncomfortable down the road because we’re just doing something because we have to do it right now. We’ll balance all that.”
Anderson, who turns 41 later this month, will ponder his playing future in the coming weeks. He’s unsure if he can physically handle the rigors of an 82-game season. Most of his time in Buffalo was spent managing a neck injury that kept him out of the lineup for nearly three months. Hip pain forced him to sit out the season’s final three games.
He reached the 300-win milestone while having success on and off the ice in what he called one of the most enjoyable seasons in his 19-year NHL career. His family of him will be his priority when deciding what’s 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 take a breath, spend a little time with his family here and just be honest. That’s what we’ve asked him to do. He and I will be in conversations here after he has a little time to take it all in.”
Luukkonen will have an opportunity to take the starting job. He was drafted in the second round in 2017 and has played 60 games with the Rochester Americans. There’s also been success in Buffalo, albeit in a limited sample size. Luukkonen has a .913 save percentage in 13 NHL appearances, including nine this season.
Luukkonen’s full-time arrival has been delayed by minor lower-body injuries the past two seasons. He’s unavailable for the Amerks’ play-in playoff series because he was injured on a violent collision when a Utica player crashed into the crease Friday. But the Sabers were encouraged by how well Luukkonen played in the season’s final weeks when Rochester finally had healthy AHL- and NHL-quality talent. He had a .921 save percentage over his final eight appearances of the regular season.
Luukkonen has the pedigree – he won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship and earned MVP honors in the Ontario Hockey League – and talent to be the long-term solution. Consistency has been elusive.
The Sabers are expected to add a veteran goalie 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 goalie. He simply needs a bridge option and expressed excitement for what’s ahead, including Levi’s potential arrival next spring. The Sabers hold Levi’s NHL rights until the summer of 2024.
Levi, 20, earned the NCAA’s top honor for a goalie last month following a record-breaking sophomore season at Northeastern University.
“What he did 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 I’ll share with you, one of the reasons we talked about him wanting to go back to school, was because he said, ‘I want to feel the pressure of being the top goalie in the country and having expectations on me and work through that.’ That’s a pretty mature answer for a young player to have.
Here are other takeaways from Adams’ news conference:
Ryan Johnson, a Sabers prospect drafted 31st overall in 2019, is leaning toward returning to the University of Minnesota for his senior season, Adams said. Johnson, 20, is a left-shot defenseman who likely would have to start his professional career in Rochester. He was only 17 years old when he was selected by Buffalo and needed ample time to develop.
The Golden Gophers reached the Frozen Four last month and some of their top upperclassmen are returning next season. Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t sign with Buffalo by August 2023, but Adams did not express concern.
“If they’re in an environment where we feel they can get better, that’s what we look at,” he said. “I know his coaching staff very well, I know the league he plays in and think this will help him continue to get better if that’s ultimately the final decision he makes.”
The plan has changed on defense. Before the trade deadline, Adams told reporters that he was interested in acquiring an experienced partner for Owen Power, either during the season or this summer. Much has changed since the comment, though.
Power had success with Henri Jokiharju and proved at only 19 years old that he has a mature two-way game that will allow him to play top-four minutes without help from a veteran. Mattias Samuelsson and Rasmus Dahlin formed a dynamic partnership in which they rotated between the left and right side in the middle of a shift.
Adams’ focus has shifted to potentially adding someone who can play the left or right side, rather than someone specifically for Power or Dahlin.
“More about is there the right person that fits what we’re doing here that can be added to all parts of the culture and their on-ice play?” he said. “So, yeah, for sure, we’re going to look at that. But probably more comfortable with … that right type of fit rather than it has to be (for a specific player).”
Adams and coach Don Granato sound prepared to name a captain in the fall. And while neither would provide details on who will wear the ‘C,’ Adams’ answer to a question about the captaincy might have revealed that Kyle Okposo is the leading candidate.
“Donny and I will continue to have some conversations, but I can’t highlight enough Kyle Okposo and what he means to this group,” Adams said. “From the exit meetings to during the season, every day, the conversations I’d have with him or other people just to say what he’s done and what he means to this group. We’re excited. We feel we have a really good now group of leaders.”
The Sabers will try to make responsible additions to the roster, but Adams said that he expects to use all three of his first-round draft choices, one of which is contingent upon the Golden Knights not earning a top-10 selection through the lottery.
Adams spoke about the importance of a strong prospect pipeline. The Sabers might have two prospects graduating to the NHL next season – Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka – and it’s time to wonder if two others might not sign: Johnson and Portillo.
“We want to make sure we’re setting this organization up for sustainable long-term success,” Adams said. “And certain decisions you can make in the short term that maybe would push you a little bit further along, it may come back to haunt you a little bit later.”
The most prominent, and 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 choices to the Sabers. Early returns have helped change the outlook for the franchise.
“Man, it’s exciting as I think back on it,” Adams said. “And it’s why maybe people did say you took a long time, we were patient, but it’s because in my opinion, we just couldn’t compromise on what we needed to do for this franchise.”