For a second consecutive year, Buffalo Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark went into the NHL offseason as a restricted free agent and filed for salary arbitration. Last year, Ullmark's arbitration hearing had started, but he never got to a point where the league arbiter issued an award as the Sabres and Ullmark came to terms on a one-year deal.
This time around, both sides nearly made it to arbitration again, but a deal was struck late Sunday night for one year worth $2.6 million.
The 27-year-old netminder firmly planted his feet into the No. 1 role in Buffalo this past season, as he put up a 17-14-3 record with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. Ullmark's play heading into January was getting better and better and he could have been helpful in a potential playoff push heading into February and March. However, he suffered a lower-body injury that forced him to miss nearly six weeks of action.
As Ullmark heads into the 2020-21 season on another one-year deal and as the new full-time starting goalie, he's not going to sit back and get too comfortable in his role.
"It's always the time to prove myself," Ullmark said. "It doesn't matter if I'm on a one[-year], two[-year], three[-year] or a long-[term] deal. It doesn't take away the things that I need to do every day to prove myself as being a starting goaltender in this league."
"It's pretty obvious that you, as a goalie, need the support from everyone. If the coach and the [general manager] don't like you, you're not going to stay on the team," Ullmark said. "I'm very fortunate, I'm very happy to continue my journey here with the Sabres. To prove every doubter wrong is probably [one of] the most satisfying things as a goaltender except for saving all the shots in a single game. It's going to be my goal to take my game to the next level and prove myself."
This offseason has been a unique one for Ullmark after the 2019-20 regular season was suspended, and eventually ended prematurely for the Sabres in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the NHL officially ended the Sabres' season back on May 26, it was a lot of waiting and self-updating for Ullmark as he hoped for a return to hockey at some point.
"You took the first couple of months to prep yourself for the [continuing] of the season. Then when that didn't happen, it was a nice time to get away from it all and take a couple of weeks of a little break," Ullmark said. "It's certainly been hard, but not particularly to keep myself mentally focused and all that stuff. It just takes so long and there's a lot of uncertainties. There's no one that has an answer to everything, and you're just going day-by-day trying to update yourself with the news, seeing if there's anything new that's going to happen. When August came, I [figured] I'm just going to leave it knowing someone is going to reach out to me, and there's not going to be a need to keep myself updated every day."
For Ullmark, he's spent his days back in Sweden during the coronavirus pandemic with his family. He says that life during the pandemic has been much more different in his home country than what many others around the world have been dealing with.
"Living so far up north, even though some argue that it's not that far, we have it pretty easy. There's [really] no restrictions. I go by my day as usual," Ullmark said. "You're a little bit more concerned whenever you get some sort of symptoms, maybe a runny nose, a little bit of a cough, anything like that, everybody stays home. People have become a lot more aware of how they are actually feeling and not just push through it."
To help pass the time as the NHL comes up with a plan to start the upcoming season, Ullmark has been busy at home working on some personal projects and not focused too much on hockey.
"A lot of renovations. It started out small doing some easy stuff, and then kind of just ramped it up with creating my own couch and stuff like that. Now we're in full-throttle of remodeling our kitchen back home. It's been a challenge," Ullmark said. "There's a lot of obstacles that you don't see at the beginning of when you start the projects, but as you continue on, you try to solve them as quick and as perfectly as possible."
As Ullmark gets ready to start up the 2020-21 season, he says that he learned quite a bit from last season that he hopes to use to build some success going forward. One of the biggest things Ullmark was able to grow his game off of was all the playing time he earned and facing some stiffer competition in the NHL.
"The more experience you get, the easier everything else gets. I only played my second season now with the Sabres, so I'm fairly new to this NHL hockey," Ullmark said. "For every game that goes by, it's going to be not per-say easier, but some things are going to fall into place both mentally and physically, and how to read the game and how to act on the game."
As for the offseason changes made by the Sabres, Ullmark is very much looking forward to getting back to Buffalo and getting a chance to practice against players like Eric Staal and Taylor Hall.
"It's going to help me to play against these guys every single day," Ullmark said. "We had some great snipers last year as well, but now we're adding Hall, for starters, who's going to bring a tremendous amount of offensive skills. Being the player that he is, he [was the] MVP of the season for a reason. It's certainly is going to help us to take the next step as a team to put up those numbers at all times, and not have those stretches where we have found it difficult to score goals."
You can listen to the entire conference call below: