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Should the Sabres trade for Connor Hellebuyck? Which other goalies could they pair with Devon Levi?

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The Buffalo Sabres came within a point of the postseason, have one of the youngest rosters in the NHL and are entering the offseason with roughly $20 million in cap space. So the NHL world will be watching Kevyn Adams and the Sabres closely this offseason as he tries to turn this roster into one that can end the franchise’s 12-year playoff drought.

On Monday, The Athletic’s Michael Russo and Eric Duhatschek reported the Sabres are a team to watch if Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck ends up on the trade market.

“One thing we’ve heard early this offseason is that the Sabres have interest in Hellebuyck, with the belief that a genuine No. 1 goaltender could be the last remaining piece in turning them into contenders. Getting one would also allow them to hold off on turning the reins over to Devon Levi until he’s proven to be NHL-ready.”

Russo and Duhatschek added that the Jets will be looking for young, cost-controlled assets in return and mentioned Ukko-Pekka LuukkonenPeyton Krebs and Casey Mittelstadt among the many players the Sabres have who fit that description.

Hellebuyck would be a major addition for the Sabres and one that would change the dynamic of their roster for next season and bolster their chances at the playoffs. But how would the move fit into Buffalo’s plan? Let’s take a look at a few factors to consider.

What would the Sabres be getting in Hellebuyck?

Hellebuyck has consistently been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. He’s a proven workhorse as a No. 1 goalie who is turning 30 years old this month and is in the final season of his contract that carries a cap hit of just over $6 million. Hellebuyck has shown no signs of slowing down. In each of the last five seasons, he has been in the top 10 among NHL goalies in goals saved above expected, according to Money Puck. He was first in that category in both 2019-20 and 2020-21 and then finished eighth in 2021-22 and fourth this past season. He’s started 130 games in the last two seasons and has at least four shutouts in four straight seasons. This is an elite goaltender who still has prime seasons left.

The reason Hellebuyck could be available is he’s entering the final season of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He expressed that he’s not interested in going through a rebuild in Winnipeg, and the Jets could be heading in that direction given the contract situations for some of their other core players. If the Jets are trying to get some value for Hellebuyck, this offseason would be the optimal time to do it.

What would Hellebuyck cost?

Figuring out how much Hellebuyck would cost is tricky. Certainly, the Sabres would need to part with some promising young players and/or prospects in the deal. But the cost shouldn’t be exorbitant considering Hellebuyck’s contract status. Paying a high cost for a rental player would not fit the way Adams has conducted business since taking over as Buffalo’s general manager. But Hellebuyck would be a difference-maker for a team with playoff aspirations. Goalies of his caliber don’t become available often, so it’s worth kicking the tires on.

There are other teams like the Los Angeles KingsPittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils that could also use a goalie, have the pieces to make an offer, and may have interest in signing him to a long-term contract. Hellebuyck is No. 1 on The Athletic’s first offseason trade board. If he’s available, the Jets will get plenty of phone calls. For that reason, my best guess is the Sabres would have to be willing to part with a first-round pick, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and another young player or prospect to convince the Jets to make a deal.

What about Devon Levi?

Hellebuyck’s presence in Buffalo would be a definite boost to Levi next season. He would handle a substantial portion of the workload, take pressure off Levi to be the No. 1 right away and provide mentorship for Buffalo’s prized young goalie. Adams doesn’t like to block prospects from playing time, but teams need two strong goalies to contend. Levi would still be able to play even with Hellebuyck in the picture.

The Sabres are enamored with Levi and for good reason. He was terrific in his seven-game audition at the end of the season, and there’s reason to believe he can be the long-term, No. 1 goalie this franchise is looking for. Last summer, Adams didn’t make a major addition at goalie, in part, because he didn’t want to deter Levi from signing with the Sabres. Levi has been and will continue to be the focal point of Buffalo’s plans in goal. He’s mentally preparing himself to be in the NHL next season.

“That’s the goal, to be here,” Levi said at the end of the season. “I’m going to be training and I’m to work as hard as I can to do the best that I can to give myself the best shot at being able to give the team a chance to win. I think it’s what it comes down to, you got to prove that every single day. It’s never given to you based on what you’ve done. You’ve got to keep doing it. So that’s kind of the mentality. I think that’s how Tom Brady also thought. I like watching him and kind of studying how he thinks, and he proved it every single day. You’re only the best that day. The next day, you’ve got to prove that you’re the best also. Having that mentality wanting to be the best is something that I try to hold onto. I’m going to be working hard to keep proving it.”

But does it hurt to have some insurance in place, especially for this season? Probably not. As bullish as the Sabres are on Levi, having him carry the load in his first NHL season comes with some risk. The seven-game sample size was strong, but it’s a small one. If Levi continues to show that he’s ready for a big NHL role, Hellebuyck would likely be a one-year rental. This will be his last chance at a big, long-term free-agent deal, so he’ll likely want a term the Sabres would be reluctant to give him. If the Sabres view Levi as the answer sooner rather than later, having a player like Hellebuyck under contract for five years could be counterintuitive.

That doesn’t make the idea any less tempting, though. Hellebuyck would make the Sabres a playoff contender and a threat to make a run in the Eastern Conference. He’s that good. And the Sabres have the assets to absorb the cost without being depleted of picks, prospects, and young talent. Adams hasn’t typically looked seriously at rental players, but maybe the team is ready for that type of move. Hellebuyck could be a special case.

What are the alternatives?

When thinking about the many layers of the Hellebuyck decision, it’s equally important to consider what other options the Sabres have in net. One would be to go into 2023 with the three goalies currently under contract. Levi, Luukkonen and Eric Comrie are all under contract. Luukkonen showed promise in his first full NHL season, but he was inconsistent. It feels early to give up on Luukkonen given the way he played for stretches of this season. Comrie struggled through injuries on two separate occasions and never found a consistent rhythm after some early season success. Pairing those two with Levi, who is still unproven, comes with some risks.

That’s what makes adding a goalie from outside the organization worth considering. But it would require moving one or both of Luukkonen and Comrie. What other options are out there?

Trade/RFA market

John GibsonDucks

The Ducks are heading for a rebuild, so John Gibson, who has four years left on his contract at north of $6 million per year, is going to be the subject of trade rumors. He’s still just 29, but he has not played up to his contract in recent years, has a 10-team no-trade list, and has four years left on that contract. Those, plus the potential acquisition cost, make him a tough sell for the Sabres. Gibson was 100th in the league in goals saved above expected this season, according to Money Puck. He was playing on a bad Anaheim team, but the recent results make him a risky buy.

Ilya Samsonov, Leafs, RFA

Ilya Samsonov signed a one-year deal with the Leafs last offseason after the Capitals decided not to qualify him. He’s a restricted free agent again this offseason and will be a name to watch in what could be an eventful offseason in Toronto. Samsonov is friends with Sabres defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, so that connection could make Buffalo an attractive option if he becomes available. Samsonov was solid for the Leafs during the regular season but was uneven in the playoffs before injuring his neck against the Panthers.

Mackenzie Blackwood, Devils, RFA

Mackenzie Blackwood got off to a strong start in his career with the Devils but has taken a step back the last two seasons. He dealt with knee and groin injuries this season and didn’t play in New Jersey’s two playoff series. There’s a chance he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer if the Devils don’t qualify him. But even in that case, he’s as much a gamble as Comrie and Luukkonen.

Dan Vladar, Flames, RFA

Dan Vladar is unproven as a starter, having started 23 and 19 games in the last two seasons. He does have a 27-12 record the last two years, but he looks like he could be the odd-man out in Calgary. Jacob Markstrom has two years left on a contract that has a $6 million cap hit. Dustin Wolf has put together a strong season in the AHL and could be ready to make the jump next season. How much of an upgrade would Vladar be over Luukkonen and Comrie? By the goals saved above expected and wins above replacement, both Luukkonen and Comrie outperformed Vladar last season, according to Money Puck.

Unrestricted free agents

Frederik Andersen, Hurricanes

Frederik Andersen had a down year because of injuries, but he’s been solid in the postseason so far for the Hurricanes with a 1.80 goals against average and .931 save percentage in six games played. If the Sabres want a veteran in net, Andersen should be near the top of the list of targets. His playoff experience would be an added bonus to a team that is lacking in that department.

Tristan Jarry, Penguins

Tristan Jarry had an up-and-down season with the Penguins because of injuries, so there’s a chance the 28-year-old ends up on the open market this summer. He’s been an All-Star twice and has the potential to be a strong No. 1 option in net. The price and term Jarry is after will matter, but the cost could be reasonable after the season he had.

Joonas Korpisalo, Kings

Joonas Korpisalo played well for the Kings after they acquired him at the deadline. He had a 7-3 record to go along with a .921 save percentage down the stretch. He also finished the regular season 11th in goals saved above expected despite playing much of the season on a struggling Columbus team. The Kings have a need in net, so they may try to retain Korpisalo, but he’s worth watching.

Semyon Varlamov, Islanders

Now 35 years old, Semyon Varlamov is nearing the end of his career. He has been relegated to backup duty in New York ever since Ilya Sorokin emerged as one of the best goalies in the NHL. That could leave Varlamov looking for a new team this summer. He’d be a decent 1B to Levi’s 1A if the price is right.

Jonathan QuickGolden Knights

Jonathan Quick is 37 years old and hasn’t been a dominant, No. 1 goalie since 2017-18. He would undoubtedly be a great mentor for Levi, but would Quick be willing to play in Buffalo with his career winding down? Could the Sabres count on him to stay healthy and be a reliable backup at this stage? He ranked fifth-worst in the NHL in goals saved above expected this season, according to Money Puck.

Conclusion: Looking at this list of options underscores how big an addition Hellebuyck would be. Every other goalie available will come with some risk or question marks. Hellebuyck looks like a sure thing by comparison. Adding him wouldn’t necessarily prevent the Sabres from making other additions to the roster, but the money and assets could be used elsewhere. That will be a consideration, too. Deciding what to do in net is crucial to figuring out the rest of the offseason puzzle. The Sabres should be monitoring the situation, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say they should be trading players like Matt Savoie or Jiri Kulich in the deal. I have some optimism about Luukkonen long term, so the Sabres’ goalie situation isn’t desperate enough to warrant selling off the top-tier prospects. But if Hellebuyck can be had for less than that, how many players available this season could impact the team as much as he could next season?

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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