Enroth “up to the challenge”

By James Schwegler

Jhonas Enroth is Buffalo’s top prospect and the 38th-ranked player overall in the most recent Hockey’s Future ratings.  The young goaltender has shown the consistency and poise to lead some to wonder whether he may ultimately unseat Ryan Miller for the Sabres starting job before Miller’s remaining six-year, $34.75 million deal has run. 

Enroth entered the 2006 NHL Draft as the top-ranked European goaltender.  After being selected by the Sabres in the second round, he spent time developing in the Elitserien, his native Sweden’s premier league.  He gained international notoriety by backstopping Team Sweden to a silver medal in the 2008 World Junior Championships.  Last summer, Buffalo signed him to a three-year entry-level contract and assigned him to the Portland Pirates of the AHL

Checking in at 5’10, 174 lbs., Enroth uses a classic butterfly style to cover the net.  He boasts uncommon quickness and agility, along with an excellent glove side.  Asked about what NHL players he patterns himself after, he referenced a similarly-statured netminder as his prototype. 

“When I was younger I looked up to Martin Gerber and Henrik Lundqvist.  I try to play like Gerber because he’s my size.”

He also discussed his chances at representing Sweden in the 2010 Olympics.  The goalie expressed cautious optimism, considering the presumptive starter is New York Rangers standout Lundqvist.

“We have a lot of good goaltenders in Sweden right now, and I hope I have a chance, but we’ll see.  I have to play really good this year, and next year too, so we’ll see.”

Early this season, he split time evenly with AHL veteran Adam Dennis.  Once Dennis went down with an injury in mid-December, Enroth has needed to carry the water for Portland. He has started 13 and 10 games in a row, respectively, from December to February. 

The role of full time starter has suited him well.  He has posted an 18-13-5 record, with three shutouts, a .919 save percentage, and 2.54 goals against average.  During this season, he’s rattled off a six-game win streak, registered 44 saves in a game (on 46 shots), and had separate shutout streaks of 101:52 and 85:33.  While his play has been consistently solid, the young starter has also had some difficult flare-ups, allowing five goals on two separate occasions (12/13 @ W/B-Scranton, 2/14 vs. Providence), and six on another (1/9 vs. Lowell). 

Enroth was the starter for Portland’s showcase game against the Albany River Rats in Buffalo’s HSBC Arena Tuesday night.  Although he acknowledged the thrill of playing in an NHL facility, he ended up with the hard luck loss in the 4-3 shootout defeat.  He stopped 24 of 27 shots, and allowed one goal in the shootout.  Playing with only five defensemen, the Pirates hung their goaltender out to dry more than once, with a bad giveaway and partial breakaway accounting for two of the goals allowed. 

To his credit, the 20-year-old goaltender did exhibit several of the attributes that have made him such a highly regarded prospect.  He showed good vision and positioning on shots from the point, particularly when Albany was on the power play.  His stickhandling, which has been considered a liability in past years, was sound throughout the game.  Rebounds were an issue, but he showed the reflexes and lateral movement to shut down second chances. Throughout the game, he flashed his celebrated glove hand, including a flourish of a save late in the game that brought the crowd to their feet.

Despite a respectable performance, Enroth seemed disappointed with the missed opportunity to notch a win on the big stage.  In the locker room after the game, while some of his teammates were milling around talking with one another, he sat in his locker with his head down in his equipment.  After he had time to decompress, the netminder spoke about what the Sabres have told him about his future in the organization. 

“To be honest, I don’t really know.  They told me to play a lot in the minors and see what happens.”

The Sabres are financially committed to their top two goalies (Miller and Patrick Lalime) through the 2009-10 season, at which point the number two spot will be wide open.  While he acknowledged that he still has a lot to learn, Enroth revealed that he expects to ultimately challenge for the top job in Buffalo.

“Buffalo has [Ryan] Miller now for six years, so it’s gonna be hard to take the first spot here in Buffalo, but I’m up to the challenge, and we’ll see what happens.”