BUFFALO – It was a low-risk move. In 2012, the Sabres wanted to find a late-round steal in net. The team’s new European scouts scoured Finland and Sweden, two countries known for producing hidden goaltending gems.
Eventually, the Sabres drafted Linus Ullmark, a little-known Swede, in the sixth round, 163rd overall.
Barely two years later, Ullmark has developed into a legitimate NHL prospect. The 20-year-old enjoyed a breakout season in the Swedish Hockey League last year, compiling a gaudy .931 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average in 35 games.
“Obviously, I’ve gotten better, but how much, I don’t know,” the loquacious Ullmark said last week following a development camp session inside the First Niagara Center.
The 6-foot-4, 201-pound Ullmark was one of the bright spots at camp, posting a shutout during his 30-minute stint in Tuesday’s scrimmage.
He’ll play one more season with MODO before coming to North America in 2015-16. By then, Ullmark could have a chance to seize a job with the Sabres.
Right now, there are open goaltending competitions throughout the organization. There’s no clear No. 1 with the Sabres or the Rochester Americans.
NHL netminders Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth have one year left on their contracts. Prospects Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov should battle for playing time in the AHL. The Sabres also have Matt Hackett, who’s recovering from a knee injury.
“It is a great opportunity for everyone because everyone starts from zero, from scratch,” said Ullmark, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract in May.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray likes big goalies, and Ullmark’s tall and lanky, just an inch shorter than Lieuwen.
“I think we have the makings of one or two that can at least back up or maybe start in this league,” Murray said.
Despite his rapid development, Ullmark, who likes to model his game after 6-foot-4 Nashville star Pekka Rinne, understands he faces an arduous road to the NHL.
“It’s a long way to the top, as we say,” he said. “Every time I get here I get a taste of it. Like, I really want to be playing in the NHL with the big guys. But it’s still a long way there. So I don’t know if I’m ever going to get there, but I hope so.”
Just working himself into the mix has been a notable achievement for Ullmark. He wasn’t a hot prospect as a youngster. Swedish teenagers can enter a three-year hockey program after graduating from high school.
“I didn’t get in any of them,” Ullmark said. “It’s a pretty big deal in Sweden to get in one of those because you get a huge opportunity to improve your game and such. I kept on working.”
Luckily, he had a reserve spot. MODO invited him to join its junior program after another player went home.
When Ullmark enjoyed a strong under-20 junior season in 2011-12, he started thinking about a hockey career.
“It felt pretty good,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Maybe, why not? I have a pretty big shot at the big team sooner or later.’ So I kept on working.”
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The Sabres invited him to a combine they ran before the 2012 draft.
“Then I was like, ‘These guys probably could be drafting me,’” he said. “But I didn’t know how big the chances were.”
Ullmark’s numbers improved steadily as he moved up the chain. Last season, he morphed into one of Sweden’s best goalies.
“I think it was the mental game,” he said about his improvement. “I had a lot of support from guys around me. My goalie coach did a great job. I didn’t have those bumps in the road, as you say.”