Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen forcing the Sabers to consider a three-goalie depth chart

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen acknowledged the uncertainty.

Despite an impressive stretch of play that’s included seven wins in his last eight starts, Luukkonen doesn’t know how much longer he’ll have a spot with the Buffalo Sabres.

Sabers goalie Eric Comrie makes 24 saves in Americans' loss

The loss snapped the Americans’ six-game winning streak.

Eric Comrie, whom the club signed to a two-year contact in July, is nearing the end of his conditioning assignment with the Rochester Americans. Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams planned to discuss next steps with Comrie following the Americans’ game Friday night.

Comrie is also expected to visit with the team’s medical staff over the weekend to determine if he is physically ready for the demands of an NHL game. The Sabers want to be sure Comrie is comfortable making every movement in the crease before he returns to Buffalo.

As of Friday, the health of the Sabres’ 23-man roster, combined with a lack of waiver-exempt forwards and defensemen to send to the American Hockey League, makes a three-goalie system seem improbable. The Sabers want to evaluate Comrie to see if the 27-year-old can be part of the solution in goal this season and beyond. Buffalo’s defense depth was ravaged by injuries during most of Comrie’s 11 starts this season.

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Craig Anderson, at 41 years old, has performed above league-average, albeit in only 14 appearances, and his leadership is invaluable to a team that’s climbed its way up the standings in the past month. He owns a .934 save percentage in his last eight appearances.

If Luukkonen is in goal Saturday against the Minnesota Wild, he’ll have to continue to show management that a nontraditional depth chart would benefit the Sabres.

“Yeah, of course you think about that, or it’s, like, in your mind, but that’s about it,” Luukkonen said following practice Friday. “That’s as much as you can give thought to that. You try to go day by day. ‘Andy’ is a great goalie and ‘Coms’ is a really good goalie, too. So, you can only focus on your own stuff and do as much as you can, play well and practice well. Usually, the rest takes care of itself. You try to handle the things you can control.”

Sabers coach Don Granato told reporters that it will be a “very tough” decision if the club can only keep two goalies and Luukkonen is still performing at a high level when Comrie is ready to return. However, Granato stressed that a decision did not have to be made Friday.

The Sabers will have at least a few days to see if a roster spot opens because of an injury. In the meantime, Granato emphasized the importance of Luukkonen “re-earning” the job each game.

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“You get choked up,” right winger Alex Tuch said. “It was serious. It still is. It was tough. But, you know, we had a job to do. And we wanted to play for the City of Buffalo and Damar.”

Luukkonen has helped Buffalo win each of his past five starts, posting a .925 save percentage during that span. According to Evolving-Hockey, Luukkonen ranks fourth in the NHL since Dec. 15 in goals saved above expected, which, unlike save percentage, accounts for the quality of shots faced.

There’s a noticeable difference in how Luukkonen looks in the crease. He’s appeared big, strong and assertive, no matter the opponent. His 28 saves at Capital One Arena on Tuesday earned the praise of Capitals coach Peter Laviolette, who told reporters afterward that Luukkonen was responsible for stifling Washington over the first 40 minutes of Buffalo’s 5-4 overtime win.

“He’s targeting the right areas to improve because his results keep getting better and better,” Granato said of Luukkonen. “His ceiling is enormous. I keep saying with him that he is in a development window in his career, a high development window. You can develop throughout your entire career, but when you’re in his age group, it’s high development.

“You need to take advantage of that opportunity as an organization to develop players in that age category. … After that, they can develop, but not at the rate. He’s in that high development window and taking a lot in and developing fast , as we’re seeing. That’s very positive.”

The Sabers have seen Luukkonen improve in several important areas. He’s making more saves when an opponent completes an accurate backdoor pass to create a high danger scoring chance. Buffalo’s defensemen have benefitted from Luukkonen’s puck handling. He’s making smart passes to help relieve pressure on the breakout. Physically, Luukkonen is better prepared to handle a heavier workload. This has allowed him to perform at a higher level in practice and games. It’s also helped him avoid the minor injuries that stifled his momentum in recent seasons.

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That one will be a special one for sure,” Thompson said. “That’s a cool game. For it to end the way that it did means so much and for me to have a big part in that it really feels special for me.”

There are still a few weaknesses that must be addressed, though. Luukkonen needs to be sharper with high, glove-side shots, and he can be too aggressive when trying to take away a shooter’s angle. Those are typical weaknesses for young goalies as they adjust to the best league in the world. It’s fair to wonder if he needs to be in the NHL to work on those specific areas of his game, given the significant difference in style of play and talent level from the AHL.

It’s not uncommon for some goalie prospects to perform better in the NHL than the AHL because of the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the latter. His splits are drastic and paint an inaccurate picture about his progress. Luukkonen has an .895 save percentage in 69 games with the Americans dating to 2019, compared to .904 in 25 games in the NHL.

“When you get called up, that’s kind of what takes the longest, to kind of figure out how you have to play here because, obviously, it’s different,” Luukkonen said. “The game is different, the shooters are different, so I feel like it’s getting better, game by game. But if you want to be a consistent, winning goalie in this league, you have to be able to do it night in and night out. I think that’s something you want to do better and going to get better at every day.”

The schedule would allow the Sabers to keep three goalies until the All-Star break. The club plays four games in each of the next three weeks, including three sets of back-to-backs. If there’s room on the roster, Granato could deploy Luukkonen, Comrie and Anderson without any of the three sitting for too long.

The Sabers are competing for a playoff spot, though. Entering Friday, they were six points behind the New York Islanders for the second wild-card slot, with four games in hand. Buffalo won’t keep an extra goalie because of development. Luukkonen, now 23 and five years removed from his selection in the second round of the 2017 draft, must show he’s ready to take the job.

“We look at things and we’re very happy with Uppie’s progress,” Granato said. “But we’re not content, and I don’t think he’s content, either. … We continue to watch that and evaluate that, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, too. We have to earn it (Saturday) night. It’s another game, and Monday is the next one. We have to keep earning it.”

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