BUFFALO – In his first professional season, Connor Knapp sat on the bench in the AHL and watched … and watched … and watched as David Leggio handled the bulk of the Rochester Americans’ goaltending duties.
Knapp made the first of his seven starts Nov. 3, the season’s 10th game. The rookie played again 13 days later, then sat another three weeks. After Knapp’s Dec. 22 appearance, Leggio started the next 15 games.
Finally, after Knapp’s last nod – a 3-2 loss to the Abbottsford Heat on Feb. 5 – dropped his record to 1-6, the Amerks sent the York native and his 3.34 goals-against average to the ECHL, where he played 12 games with the Greenville Road Warriors.
“I was in a role that I’ve never been in in my life as a backup,” Knapp, who played four years at Miami of Ohio, said Friday after the Sabres’ annual prospects scrimmage inside the First Niagara Center. “So it was a learning experience that I think I got out of the way. Going into camp next year, I’ve been there. There’s nothing new that’s going to hit me. I just got to go out there and play.”
Still, even with a year under his belt, the 23-year-old might see limited action again. The Sabres have a surfeit of goalie prospects.
Assuming they keep Ryan Miller, Matt Hackett, a key piece in April’s Jason Pominville trade with Minnesota, will almost certainly be Rochester’s No. 1 netminder. Knapp, Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov should all battle for the backup job during training camp. Leggio signed with Washington earlier this month.
“You can have so many goalies pushing each other,” Lieuwen said last week after a session of the team’s development camp. “Personally, I really like that. I like the idea of nothing handed to you every game. You go into a situation, and when you get your opportunity you got to make the best of it.”
Naturally, the Sabres want a healthy competition between their young goalies.
“We’re actually at the point now (where) guys are looking around seeing signings and young players, and they’re saying, ‘I’ve got to compete now,’” Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. “I think that’s what you’re going to see at camp.”
Of course, going to the ECHL might be a better option. Goalie prospects need to play, and starting regularly in a lower league could further their development more than sporadic action in Rochester.
Here’s more on the three goalies:
The 164th pick in 2009 knows he never seized his chances with Rochester last season.
“My first game I was playing and blew a lead,” Knapp said. “It’s just something you got to learn to close out games. I think the majority of games I played I didn’t close them out. Then David started playing really well and he was winning. The coaches made the right choice. They ran with the hot goalie. As a young guy, I got to play. I think going down to Greenville was one of the best things for me.”
He added: “When you go (1-6), it’s not good enough. You can make excuses all day, but at the end of the day, you got to win games.”
Knapp, 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, said that while he’s big, he tries “not to be a robotic-type goalie.”
“I try to use athleticism, try to be fast,” he said. “I think I’m big but I need to use it to my advantage. I can’t be sitting back in my crease too much. I just need to play big.”
The 167th pick in 2011 started his first pro season in Greenville before switching spots with Knapp.
Lieuwen posted decent ECHL numbers, going 14-10-2 with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. Prior to a season-ending injury, the 21-year-old had one shutout in four AHL appearances.
“It’s tough to say that I was glad I went down there,” Lieuwen, whose also 6-foot-5 but a lankier 192 pounds, said about the ECHL. “But I’m glad I got the minutes that I did, glad that I was able to play as much and learn as much as I did. That was definitely to my benefit.”
Lieuwen had a strong junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.
The Sabres signed the undrafted Russian in September. The 20-year-old workhorse then enjoyed a huge season, posting great numbers – 37-17-5, 2.62, .919 in 61 games – with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. He faltered badly in the playoffs, however.
Before development camp, Makarov had never visited Buffalo. He came into town earlier this month and was staying with fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, who he grew up playing against.
What kind of goalie is Makarov, an unknown in these parts?
“It’s hard to say to me,” he said. “People probably know better than me how I play. I try to stop the puck. It doesn’t matter how.”
Rolston said Makarov’s “really quick.”
“I think he needs to mature in his game, especially moving to the pro level he’s going to have to be a little more quiet in some of the things he does in the crease,” Rolston said. “He’s extremely good in shootout situations. He’s quick, he’s athletic, but he’s going to have to be a little more patient.”
Going undrafted doesn’t bother Makarov.
“Draft is just a number,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”
Clearly, Makarov’s committed to staying in North America. He came to the United States three years ago because “it’s better hockey than Russia.” He began his junior career in the QMJHL, but was forced out west when the Lewiston MAINEiacs folded.
“I didn’t have any choice,” he said. “I wanted to play, stay in North America. I didn’t want to go back to Russia.”
He added: “It’s my dream to play in the NHL, not (the Russian) KHL.”
What does he think about the crowded crease?
“I try not to think about (it),” Makarov said.