BUFFALO – Eric Comrie had always battled for an opportunity, yo-yoing between the NHL and minors. So when the Sabres signed the goalie to his first big contract last year, guaranteeing him a spot, the expectations felt unusual.
Comrie, 28, said he put so much pressure on himself “it’s kind of like I hammered myself down.”
“I came here and I had a job, I’m like, ‘Holy smokes, I’m in a whole different spot,’” Comrie told the Times Herald following Friday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “I’ve never been in this position before kind of thing. I’ve always been the guy battling for it. I think it kind of messed with my mindset a little bit.”
So Comrie told himself to trust his talents – he posted a .920 save percentage as the Winnipeg Jets’ backup in 2021-22 – and he “can do it every single night.”
“My place mentally, I’m in a much different spot (this year),” he said.
Sabres coach Don Granato said Comrie looks “more comfortable.”
That fresh mindset has helped Comrie, who’s competing with rookie Devon Levi, 21, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 24, for playing time, become one of training camp’s biggest stories.
In five periods over two preseason starts, Comrie has looked sharp, compiling a 2.43 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. He stopped 27 of the 29 shots he faced while playing all of Thursday’s 3-1 road loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Comrie’s hot start has made the goalie competition more intriguing. For months, given his age and that he has one season remaining on his two-year, $3.6 million contract, it appeared he might be the odd man out.
Levi, who’s scheduled to start this afternoon’s home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, possibly earned the No. 1 job following his arrival late last season. Meanwhile, Luukkonen, the Sabres’ starter much of last year, must clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL. The Finn almost certainly would be claimed.
Comrie’s no stranger to waivers, having been claimed four times earlier in his career. He likely wouldn’t pass through. Waiving him would be giving away a big asset. He has trade value.
After the Sabres carried three goalies the second half of last season, it was assumed they wouldn’t keep an extra one again. But perhaps if all three are playing well, they’d be willing to start the year with them continuing their battle for playing time.
The affable Comrie said different scenarios have run through his head. Still, he wants to concentrate on what he can control.
“You just got to go out there and do what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I feel like I’m just putting my best foot forward … trying to earn a spot on this team. This is a special team and I want to be a part of this team. This is a fun place to be. I mean, you can see the growth … that’s coming around here, and it’s just a place that I want to be so badly.”
Comrie just experienced an odd season in which he served as the No.1 goalie early before often sitting out games as a scratch due to the Sabres’ surfeit of netminders.
He played well in October before injuries decimated the Sabres’ defense corps. Then he tore his MCL on Nov. 16, shelving him for seven weeks. When he returned, Luukkonen and veteran Craig Anderson received most of the action.
The Sabres, however, made sure the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Comrie received some starts, and he ended the season winning five of seven from Jan. 26 to March 7. In his only regulation loss during that stretch, he allowed 10 goals. In his next start, he posted a shutout.
“Last year, I came in, put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed early, and then everything that could’ve went wrong, kind of went wrong last year,” he said. “I think I finished off on a good, strong note going 5-1-1 in my last seven. I think I’m just kind of carrying off the momentum.”
Overall last year, Comrie compiled a 9-9-1 record with a 3.67 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage in 19 games.
After the season ended, he got back on the ice in May. He was doing four sessions a week by June and five in July. His devotion to his craft makes him unique. He might spend more time on the ice than any NHL goalie.
“He is a team-first guy, a very selfless guy, and a very relentless worker,” Granato said. “He kind of edges in the category of almost working too hard. He’ll exhaust himself. He’ll stay on the ice until he’s completely exhausted not cognizant of how this may affect him the next day from a fatigue standpoint.”
Comrie said players ask him why he skates so much.
“I truly love hockey,” he said. “Like, I love playing. I’m having my most fun when I’m at the rink.”
Granato said Levi will likely play the full game today. Sabres starting goalies played 40 minutes in the first three preseason contests.