However, after a few trades and a rash of injuries, the goaltending position turned into a carousel, with five different goaltenders making starts over the final 22 games of the 2013-14 season.
The Sabres dressed nine goaltenders last season, an NHL record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Six different goaltenders took the ice over the course of the season and it’s just the second time in franchise history that that has happened. During the 1988-89 season, Tom Barrasso, Jacques Cloutier, Darren Eliot, Clint Malarchuk, Daren Puppa and Darcy Wakaluk all saw game action.
After a preview of what the future may hold, the 2014-15 season will usher in a new era of Sabres goaltending.
We have to change the culture and when you rebuild a program, it’s having a structure in place and it’s setting a foundation. The foundation will be in place and the players have gotta start earning their stripes and earning their positions. - Ted Nolan
Of the goaltenders currently in the Sabres organization, it will be Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth who will compete for the starting job in training camp.
“We’re setting up a culture here where people are going to have to start earning jobs instead of just [saying], ‘OK, Jhonas, you’ve got it,’ or ‘[Neuvirth], you’ve got it,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “It’s one of those things where we’ve got to make it competitive.
“We have to change the culture and when you rebuild a program, it’s having a structure in place and it’s setting a foundation. The foundation will be in place and the players have gotta start earning their stripes and earning their positions.”
Both goaltenders were selected in second round of the 2006 NHL Draft. The Washington Capitals picked Neuvirth 34th overall and the Sabres took Enroth 12 picks later. They both said during locker cleanout that they want to win the starting job in the fall.
“[Enroth’s] a great goalie, a great guy and it’s going to be a good competition,” Neuvirth said. “Hopefully he’s going to push me to be a better goalie and I’m going to push him to be a better goalie. It’s going to be good.”
Ryan Miller appeared in 540 games for the Sabres and has the distinction of owning the record for most wins in franchise history. He started the year as the Sabres No. 1 goaltender, but with an expiring contract and the Sabres out of playoff contention, the team opted to move him.
After the team traded Miller to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 28, Enroth, Miller’s backup for the past four seasons, took the reins.
Enroth played well in his seven games after the Miller trade. He posted a .926 save percentage and a 2.45 goals-against average before leaving the game against the Canadiens on March 16 with a lower-body injury.
He sprained his right MCL in a collision with Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher and that forced Nathan Lieuwen to enter the game and make his NHL debut. (Lieuwen dressed for that game because Michal Neuvirth was out due to injury.) The injury kept Enroth out for the remainder of the season and he anticipates another four weeks of recovery time.
While he would’ve preferred to be on the ice, Enroth said that being out of the lineup gave him a new perspective on his profession. Particularly, he was able to interact with fans in a way he wouldn’t normally be able to because of his pregame routines.
“Just driving into the game and you saw all the passion in the fans’ faces and stuff like that. It’s not like we don’t expect it. It’s more like we don’t really think about it too much when we’re playing,” he said. “So it’s definitely a good thing and you can tell how passionate the fans here in Buffalo are. It was something I picked up, something I learned from that.
“…I got a chance to step back and see everything from a different kind of view and I think that was good for me. I think that was something I’m going to take with me to next year and hopefully I will grow from it.”
He said he might be ready to go for the IIHF World Championships that begin this week in Belarus. Last year, he backstopped Sweden to a gold medal.
“It was a great experience and I had a lot of fun so I would like to go again,” Enroth said. “We’ll see.”
Buffalo acquired Neuvirth as part of the trade that sent Jaroslav Halak to Washington at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5. Halak came to Buffalo in the Miller trade and served as the backup for one game, but never played for the Sabres.
Neuvirth appeared in only two games with Buffalo before a nagging hip injury ended his season. However, he made a whole lot of saves in those two starts.
He stopped 93 of the 98 shots he faced, including a 51-save performance in Carolina on March 13. Neuvirth became the first Sabres goaltender to make at least 50 saves in a regular-season game since Dominik Hasek turned aside 55 on March 1, 1996.
Neuvirth said he woke up feeling sore the next morning in Long island and dressed as the backup against the New York Islanders the next night. However, the injury would keep him out for the rest of the season.
He traveled with the team out to Western Canada for a road trip and practiced in new blue-and-gold pads in Edmonton on March 19, but was sent back to Buffalo on March 25 for further evaluation.
“It seemed like it wasn’t that bad. I wanted to come back but it was too soon, and I made it worse,” Neuvirth said.
For Neuvirth, it was difficult to come to a new team and then be out of the lineup almost immediately.
“It’s big-time frustrating. You come to a new team and you want to be good for your new team. I thought I had a good couple games but getting hurt was obviously very frustrating for me,” he said. “It was tough.
“…[I’ve] gotta regroup in the summer and use this frustration to motivate me to work even harder in the summer. Come back here in the best shape I can get, work hard and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
With Enroth and Neuvirth both on the shelf, Lieuwen and Matt Hackett rotated starts during the team’s five-game, 11-day road trip in March.
Both Lieuwen and Hackett were playing for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League so the Amerks needed to call up Andrey Makarov and Connor Knapp from the ECHL to fill their goaltending vacancies.
Soon enough, both goaltenders would find themselves up in the NHL.
Lieuwen, 22, won his first NHL game on April 1, a shootout victory over the Devils. However, on April 6, two starts later, he sustained a concussion in Philadelphia when he was hit by Flyers forward Jay Rosehill. Rosehill cut across the crease late in the third period and made contact with Lieuwen’s head.
Lieuwen did not play for the remainder of the NHL season. That would also be his last game action of the entire 2013-14 season.
So with another goaltender out due to injury, the Sabres recalled Makarov for his first taste of the NHL lifestyle. He backed up Hackett for two games before being sent back down to help the Amerks secure a playoff berth. Makarov would go on to play all five games on Rochester’s first-round playoff loss to Chicago, posting a 3.01 GAA and .907 save%.
Connor Knapp was recalled to serve as Hackett’s backup in Boston on April 12 and became the ninth goaltender to dress for the Sabres (Ryan Vinz, a HARBORCENTER employee, served as Enroth’s backup the night Miller was traded).
Nolan planned on riding Hackett for the rest of the season. Hackett finished the season 1-6-1 with a .908 save percentage and a 3.10 goals-against average. However, his season ended one game early.
The Sabres were forced to call Knapp into action in the third period on April 12 in Boston when Hackett went down with a scary knee injury.
Bruins forward Torey Krug crashed the net and ran into Hackett. Hackett, face-down on the ice, immediately grabbed at the back of his right knee and was tended to by the training staff. He had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher.
Knapp finished up that game and then started the team’s final game of the season, a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.
“It was a tough situation for him, but I thought the guys that played did a real good job and it’s definitely a good competition,” Enroth said.
Miller once played 76 games in a single season for the Sabres as the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. All of the goalies in the Sabres system hope to have the opportunity to step in and become a franchise goaltender.
Whether it turns out to be Enroth or Neuvirth next season, what happens in the blue paint will surely be one of the more interesting position battles during training camp in September and beyond.