With a full year as a starter in the AHL under his belt, it was fair to assume entering the offseason that Linus Ullmark had put himself in a position to assume the backup role in the NHL full-time. Ullmark led all AHL goalies with 3,082:36 of total ice time and was named an All-Star.
Then July 1 came, and the Sabres brought Chad Johnson back on a one-year deal. The move was made not because the team felt Ullmark wasn't ready to play in the NHL, Jason Botterill said at the time, but rather because they saw more benefit in him playing every game as opposed to sitting as backup to Robin Lehner.
Ullmark seemed unbothered by it all when speaking after practice on Thursday. His attitude was the same as it was when he spoke after the final last game of last season: He's just happy to be here.
"You always want to be the guy that plays in the NHL," Ullmark said. "But I'm just going to buy my time, take my time and enjoy every day as it goes, try to develop my game and me as a person. That's what I'm looking forward to."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: ULLMARK
Ullmark will get the start in net tonight for the Sabres against the Toronto Maple Leafs. His only appearance in the preseason thus far came in relief of Lehner on Monday night, when he was a perfect 10-for-10 in the third period prior to allowing a breakaway goal in overtime.
After being thrust into sharing the starting duties with Johnson for much of his rookie season in 2015-16, Ullmark only played in one NHL game last season. He started the season finale against Tampa Bay and made 37 saves.
He was a workhorse for the Amerks, though, often starting three games in three nights. The team struggled in spite of his personal success, and the ups and downs led to personal growth. When he grows as a person, he said, he grows as a goalie.
"I grew from it," he said. "I'm 24, I've still got lots to learn, lots of hockey in me."
The Sabres gave up a sixth-round pick along with William Carrier to Vegas in the expansion draft this past summer, in part to protect Ullmark from being selected. The move could be seen as a testament to how the organization values Ullmark as a prospect.
At the same time, Botterill has maintained his stance that competition breeds development. Thus the Sabres also signed Adam Wilcox to a two-way contract on July 1, bringing a goaltender who started 47 AHL games a season ago into the mix.
It's good, then, that Ullmark doesn't plan on taking his position for granted.
"It feels like I can play [in the NHL], but also it's going to be up to the coaches that I am making an effort down there," he said. "I just can't go half-assed or sloppy. It's got to be very professional every day, go 100 percent, no [50-percent efforts] or anything like that because then you have guys coming from underneath trying to take your spot. I've got to do the same thing. I've got to earn my spot.
"I go day-by-day and enjoy the moment. It's fun to be here."
Updates on Scandella and Nylander
He won't play tonight, but Marco Scandella took a step in the right direction by returning to practice with the non-game group. The Sabres have been playing it safe with Scandella, who's coming off of hip surgery as the end of last season, and gave him rest days on Wednesday and Thursday.
"I feel good today," Scandella said. "It was good to be out with the boys. Some days aren't going to be as good as others. I'm just coming off surgery, so just getting back to playing at the NHL level, practicing hard. We're just taking our time with it so I don't get reinjured."
Alex Nylander has yet to skate at training camp after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first game of the Prospects Challenge on Sept. 8, but Phil Housley offered a promising update on him following practice this morning.
"He's doing well," Housley said. "He's making strides every day. It's something that we're going to be slow with but he is making improvements. I don't know when he's going to be on the ice, but I would say that it's going to be in the near future."
Video: Phil Housley Pregame (9/22/17)
There's been a good deal of competition for starting jobs in camp, and we'll see a lot of the candidates for forward positions in the lineup tonight. One position of interest is fourth-line center, assuming the Sabres stick with Sam Reinhart on the third line behind Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel.
Any conversation about that job would likely include the names Johan Larsson, Jacob Josefson and Evan Rodrigues, and we'll see all three of them tonight. Larsson and Rodrigues are expected to get looks on the left wing after beginning camp at center, while Josefson will play down the middle.
"I think competition is high, which I think it should be," Josefson said. "When competition is high you become a better player as well. You have to compete for every practice and every game and show yourself that you belong."
Zemgus Girgensons will also play at center for the first time this preseason after beginning camp on the left wing alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo. Here's what the full lineup is expected to look like, based on Thursday's practice:
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 25 Seth Griffith
22 Johan Larsson - 10 Jacob Josefson - 13 Nicholas Baptiste
71 Evan Rodrigues - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 52 Stevie Moses
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 12 Kevin Porter - 59 Cliff Pu
19 Jake McCabe - 5 Matt Tennyson
93 Victor Antipin - 38 Cody Goloubef
41 Justin Falk - 27 Taylor Fedun
35 Linus Ullmark
32 Adam Wilcox
The matchup with the Maple Leafs will mark the first leg of a home-and-home set, with the two teams set to meet again at KeyBank Center on Saturday night. Tonight's game will be played at Ricoh Coliseum, home of the AHL's Toronto Marlies.
You can listen to the game live on WGR 550, with puck drop set for 7:30 p.m.