If there is one piece of the Buffalo Sabres puzzle that's questionable heading into the upcoming 2016-17 season, it is the goaltenders.
This season, the Sabres are seemingly ‘set’ with a pair of Swedes in net: Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson. This is arguably a big question mark for the Sabres, as Nilsson is new to the organization and Lehner barely played last year due to injuries, so really, what can we expect?
Let's take it one piece at a time, starting with Lehner.
The 25-year-old has played a handful of games in each of the last six NHL seasons -- but he's never been in a position to handle the majority of a team's workload. The most action he's seen in a single season came with the Senators in 2013-14, when he appeared in 36 games and racked up a 3.06 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Fast-forward to last season, when Lehner was locked in as the Sabres' starting netminder, with expectations high. That was all shattered in the season opener when Lehner suffered an ankle injury, sidelining him until mid-January.
He came back for about two months and appeared in 20 games before being shut down once again -- this time for the remainder of the season.
If all of this says one thing, it's that Lehner is largely unproven -- at least in the capacity of a starting goaltender, and that may be exactly the position he's heading into this season. The big question is whether or not he can stay healthy, and it IS a big question.
Lehner was recently named to Team Sweden for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, but was replaced by former Sabres netminder Jhonas Enroth on August 26. It's believed that Lehner pulled out of the World Cup in order to have more time to fully recover from his surgery earlier this year, and to be ready for the regular season. That would certainly be a smart move; there is no reason to rush back for a seemingly-pointless tournament when the season is right around the corner. Still, it remains unclear whether he will actually be ready to hit the ice when October comes.
Behind Lehner, Nilsson is also quite untested, with just 52 NHL games under his belt since 2011.
Like Lehner, he's never been in a position to be an NHL starting goalie (and likely isn't in that position here), but has been growing through the AHL over the past few seasons.
Last season, Nilsson bounced around a little bit, appearing in 26 games for the Edmonton Oilers and two games for the Bakersfield Condors. He also played three games for the St. Louis Blues.
Now, with his journey to Buffalo, he'll suit up with his seventh team in four seasons.
Personally, I'm uneasy at best about the Sabres goaltending situation this season. Lehner hasn't proven himself as a solid starter just yet, and his injury problems last season are troubling. If he goes out early like last year, can Nilsson step up? Even if Lehner stays healthy, he won't play every single game, so Nilsson has to be able to fill in.
Obviously, what's done is done, but part of me still wishes GMTM hadn't let Chad Johnson walk away. He was an uncertain piece heading into last season, but proved himself when he had to step up in Lehner's absence, and I wouldn't have minded seeing him back in the blue and gold.
Alas, that didn't happen, and the Sabres are likely to start the year off with the Lehner-Nilsson tandem. Can Buffalo finally find some consistency in net?
Over the past three seasons, 12 different goaltenders have seen the ice in at least one game for the Sabres, including four last season and five in the prior season. The Sabres need to return to a strong one-two punch if they hope to really step up their game this season, and while I'm nervous about this season's tandem, it is all we can do to hope they both step up.