What the numbers say about the 2017-18 Sabres
A new era begins in Buffalo.
The Sabres finished the 2016-17 season with 33 wins and 78 points, looking up from the cellar of the Atlantic division. Former head coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray, once tasked with seeing the Sabres through a rebuilding phase, were replaced as part of sweeping offseason changes within the organization. Now, first-time head coach Phil Housley and GM Jason Botterill take over the team, looking to buck the trend of 7th or 8th place finishes in the division since 2013-14.
It won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of hope.
Botterill has done some work reshaping his roster, cutting ties with a handful of regulars from last season and taking chances on a few players with upside in the hope of returning to the hunt for a playoff berth this season.
Here, we’ll take a detailed look at the new players set to join the Sabres and take a deeper look into what fans can expect from the team in 2017-18.
Will the Sabres be better this season? Let’s dig in.
Aiming for a Better Rebuild
Fans in Buffalo can be excused for feeling a little impatient. Under the watch of Murray, the team tanked harder than any in the advanced stats era, bottoming out to a Corsi for percentage (CF%, which measures the team’s share of all shot attempts taken in a game) of almost 35% in 2014-15.
Since that dreadful season, the team’s lineup has become more competitive and rejoined the bottom-half of the NHL in controlling the flow of the puck during games.
Still, last year’s edition of the Sabres disappointed. Injuries played a role, in part, as budding star Jack Eichel and dependable scorer Kyle Okposo missed considerable stretches of the season. Lacking depth, particularly at forward, the Sabres finished 25th in goals for and lacked offensive punch throughout the campaign.
All of this prompted Botterill to execute a slew of roster tinkers.
This graph shows the most notable players that joined or left the Sabres this summer (new Sabres defenseman Viktor Antipin is not included. He played in the KHL last year, so there’s no NHL data to include). “Value above replacement” has two meanings here. For skaters, this is “GAR” or “goals above replacement,” a catch-all, single stat measurement of all the contributions a player makes that impact the team’s chance of winning. For much more on that stat, read Dawson Sprigings’ excellent work.
For goalies, value above replacement means the total number of goals that goaltender saved in relation to what a league average goaltender would have saved.
Winger Jason Pominville, returning from the Minnesota Wild for his second stint with the Sabres, was excellent last season. His GAR value was surpassed by only Ryan O’Reilly on the Sabres roster (more on that in a moment). If the 34-year-old manages anything near a repeat performance, not a sure thing at his age, he’ll add significant offensive depth to the forward ranks.
Botterill managed to patch up the defense pairings too. Cody Franson, for all the knocks on his skating, managed an overall GAR score of 3.4. Dimitry Kulikov suffered through a nightmarish campaign with the Sabres, mustering a GAR of 1.8 before being allowed to leave via free agency this summer.
Defender Marco Scandella (27 years old), acquired with Pominville in the Minnesota deal, and ex-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu (24 y.o.) registered GAR values of 3.8 and 3.5 respectively. League average for defensemen was approximately 3.1 and both defenders are young enough to be expected to repeat their performance and solidify the Sabres’ defense pairs in 2017-18.
After that, there’s not a lot to get excited about. 26-year-old Jacob Josefson can add depth to the middle six if he repeats his GAR value from last season (3.9 GAR score. NHL average for forwards was approximately 4.0). Captain Brian Gionta won’t return and Botterill is banking on a hit from gambles on forwards Seth Griffith, Kevin Porter, and Benoit Pouliot, none of whom tipped the scales much last season.
In net, the Sabres will miss Anders Nilsson (27 y.o.) who managed a Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) of 8.17 (the 15th-best mark in the NHL) despite playing in only 26 games last season. Incoming replacement Chad Johnson (31 y.o.) posted a GSAA of -3.17, one of the worst GSAA ratings in the league. Starter Robin Lehner will need to be prepared to carry the load in goal for the Sabres to have a chance at improvement next season.
This is a look at how the rosters’ GAR values look based on last season’s results.
With all of this in mind, what is the best way for the lineup to shake out?
A few notes on this lineup projection and the information presented on the graph:
It’s reasonable to predict that Nylander won’t be ready to take a full-time NHL roster spot this year. In that case, Nicholas Baptiste or Justin Bailey may slide into that fourth line role. Neither of these substitutes has a defined “style” yet, so their playing style is as unknown as it is for Nylander.
On the left is the list of available players and their GAR ratings from last year. The color-coded playing types are based on excellent research done by Ryan Stimson, which can be read here. Certain “styles” work best when combined, as reflected in their expected goals for percentage (xGF%).
Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel both rate as “playmakers,” which is the most valuable style. The two are excellent anchors for the top two lines. Evander Kane, Zemgus Girgensons, Okposo and Pominville rate as “shooters.” Together, these six form a dangerous top two lines, with xGF%s in excess of 55 percent.
In this version, the Sabres can ice a third line of balanced skaters; Pouliot-Sam Reinhart-Johan Larsson. This would be a very competent line capable, in theory, of posting positive results.
The fourth line, much like most NHL teams, is a wildcard. Former scoring threat Matt Moulson and Josefson are “dependents.” which is the least impactful playing style. Regardless of who joins this duo, the line won’t be expected to post positive results. Perhaps Alex Nylander with a yet-unknown playing style could start here and work his way up the roster as the season progresses.
And now, the defense pairs:
The Sabres’ defense corps lacks any “all-around” players, which are the most positively impactful blue liners. However, Scandella and Ristolainen rate as “volume shooters” and form a theoretically strong top pair. Newcomer Beaulieu is a “puck-mover” and likely deserves a chance to work on Buffalo’s second-pairing.
In this roster projection, Jake McCabe would pair with Beaulieu, leaving Antipin and Bogosian to play bottom-pair minutes. Like Nylander among the forwards, Antipin’s playing style is unknown. He may prove to be worthy of additional time playing in the top-four.
Some concluding thoughts
Botterill’s additions of Pominville, Antipin, Scandella, and Beaulieu will strengthen the lineup. If the lineup is pieced together with attention to the styles that blend best, the Sabres have a chance to ice a forward and defense group with positive expected results. If at least one of the youngsters (Nylander, Bailey, Baptiste) plays and Antipin proves capable of handling regular NHL minutes, the team will boast depth around stars like Eichel and O’Reilly.
The Atlantic Division is in flux, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning looking strong, the Ottawa Senators and Canadiens set to trot out rosters that have not been improved, and the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings poised to step back. With some health, the Sabres have a chance to break the streak of 7th and 8th place finishes this season.
And, with some luck, maybe even better than that.
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