How Buffalo’s defense is stifling its own forwards

November 14, 2017

It’s no secret the Buffalo Sabres have struggled mightily to generate offense. Yet there still seems to be a divide on what the core issue is. Not enough goal scorers? First-round picks not playing up to potential? Jack Eichel not qualified to be a leader? You’ve likely heard it all.

For a while now, I’ve been of the opinion that the defense is to blame. Something about the Sabres’ overall play brings back too many memories of the Dan Bylsma era. It’s hard to blame Phil Housley for opting to pull in the reins a bit. He watched his team get blown out by the Islanders and Devils early on, and fans were simply not having it. However, as his predecessor learned the hard way, trying to win games by yielding possession and zone time to the opposition isn’t sustainable.

This weekend, I tracked the Sabres defense corps’ controlled zone exits for, and controlled zone entries against.

With zone exits I was looking for two specific things.

First, the number of times the defensemen could move the puck from their own end to the neutral zone in a controlled manner (pass or rush). In other words, how often they could start and create sustainable offense going the other way from their own end.

Second, the number of failed exits, meaning how often defensemen were failing to clear the puck out of their own end in any fashion resulting in the opposition maintaining pressure against the Sabres (and keeping the offense from doing its thing).

When I tracked zone entries against, I was looking specifically at plays where the puck carrier for the opposing team gained the line and sustained possession; dump and chase was not included. I wanted to see how the defense as a whole stacked up when it was challenged by the other teams’ speed and skill. Dump and chase showcases exactly none of that. I also tracked how many of those zone entry attempts the Sabres’ defense actually managed to stop.

I also began tracking shot assists for all Sabres skaters. It’s exactly what it sounds like: players who assisted on a player’s shot on target. No single metric is perfect, but shot assists tend to reveal who is actually driving meaningful offense on the ice.

Here’s the data from both weekend games. All at five-on-five.

Zone entries against/exits for vs. Florida

Defenseman: Falk Scandella McCabe Fedun Beaulieu Antipin
Controlled zone entries against: 8 3 3 4 3 2
Controlled zone entries stopped: 1 0 0 0 0 0
Controlled zone exits for: 3 0 6 1 5 1
Failed exits: 1 3 0 2 1 1

Zone entries against/exits for vs. Montreal

Defenseman: Scandella Falk Beaulieu Gorges McCabe Fedun
Controlled zone entries against: 6 3 8 5 3 4
Controlled zone entries stopped: 2 1 0 0 0 0
Controlled zone exits for: 1 2 2 1 1 2
Failed exits: 0 0 2 3 2 0

Florida’s game plan was pretty obvious from puck drop. They saw a #7 d-man in Justin Falk playing top-pair minutes and just feasted on him. Nathan Beaulieu and Jake McCabe looked alright relative to their teammates, at least when it came to zone exits. Through the early part of the season, they’ve been the two best at it. It’s really unfortunate that Rasmus Ristolainen went down when he did because he was really starting to raise his game in both areas.

The Montreal game is where the memories of Bylsma crept in. There were times when it looked like four guys were playing defense for the Sabres and had all but abandoned any sort of attempt at a breakout pass.

The overall picture here tends to line up with the eye test. This team is playing boring hockey and it starts with the defense. They tend to give up the blue line rather easily, but that’s not even the scary part.

It’s easy to think having low failed exit numbers is a good thing, but in reality the total number of attempts is too low. This is likely the result of Housley instructing forwards to come all the way back and become a bit tighter and more responsible in their own end. The problem is this essentially gives them no avenue to create any sort of offense.

Truthfully, no system change is going to cover up a lack of talent. The Sabres didn’t (or shouldn’t have) come into this season with high expectations. So the decision to tighten up to the extent that they have seems bizarre.

You may get blown out more often if you open things up. But given that it’s the first season here for both Housley and Jason Botterill, wouldn’t you like to see which players actually fit in? Who can handle high octane offense, and who needs to be cut loose? I can’t imagine the plan going forward is to employ tight-checking, boring hockey when this team wants to compete. Better to find out now who can hack it than wait until the pressure and expectations are significantly higher.

Shot assists leaders vs. Florida:

McCabe: 3

O’Reilly: 2

Eichel, Kane, Pominville, Okposo, Reinhart: 1

Shot assists leaders vs. Montreal:

Eichel, Reinhart: 3

Kane, Pouliot, Okposo, Girgensons, Beaulieu, Moulson, Pominville: 1

Normally, I’d be impressed to see a defenseman lead in shot assists. But when you build around three forwards, you want to see those guys at the top. McCabe has taken a lot of heat early this season for his defensive play, but as hoped for by Botterill and Housley, the offensive play is there. Now we need to see the points follow.

What we really want to take away from this is what, or rather who, isn’t listed on here. The absence of Ristolainen is definitely being felt offensively, as McCabe and Beaulieu were the only defensemen to register shot assists in the two weekend games.

The bottom-six forward group is also by and large missing here as well. When you can’t get any sort of production from your depth forwards, you basically run a two-line team with the other two out there just killing time without producing anything meaningful. Pickings unfortunately are slim for Housley here, especially with the mandate that younger players spend some time in the AHL before getting their shot with the big club.

On a positive note, reuniting Eichel and Sam Reinhart against Montreal seemed to spark some life back into both of them.  Hopefully, Housley will keep that duo together to help get the offense going.

Michael Ghofrani
About Michael Ghofrani

Michael Ghofrani has been working on finding hockey statistics that can break down and explain certain game events. He's also a Sabres follower from Toronto doing his best to fend off Leafs Nation.

Browse more articles by Michael Ghofrani.

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