Sabres quarter-season report cards
To say it’s been a brutal start to the season would be an understatement.
The Sabres are currently 27th in Corsi For percentage and dead last in expected goals for percentage. The goaltending has been shaky at best, and the poor overall play from the defense last year has carried over and continues to hurt the team. Perhaps the most frightening statistic of all is zero goals from the defensemen.
There’s no hiding the fact that this season is pretty much toast. But looking past the terrible hockey we’ve witnessed, there are still some positives to take away that should keep fans hopeful for the future. Here are the quarter-season report cards for the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres:
Evander Kane: A
Tied for fourth in the NHL with 12 goals, second on the team in points per 60 mintues at 5v5 and the highest expected goals for % on the Sabres, it’s not hard to see why so many fans want Kane extended. On a team deprived of goals, he’s getting it done. What’s even better is that his aggressive play hasn’t really held him back. He’s taken six penalties but drawn five, so as long as he can keep the gap between the two close it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. One stat worth noting is his shooting percentage. At 12.5, he’s about 4 percent above his career norm, so don’t be surprised if he cools off a bit in the near future.
Jack Eichel: A-
There were sky high expectations of Eichel after finishing in the top ten in points per game and signing a massive 8-year, $80 million deal before the season. Fans appear to be divided on what he has done so far, but there are a lot of reasons to remain optimistic about Eichel’s future as the franchise guy. Eichel currently sits third in the NHL in primary points at 5v5 and his shooting percentage sits at 7.5, about 2.5% below his career norm. He still ranks among the top Sabres in categories like expected goals and penalties drawn. He also sits second to Ryan O’Reilly in takeaways. The faltering power play hasn’t helped his stat line, but the return of Rasmus Ristolainen should help Eichel in that regard.
Ryan O’Reilly: B+
His salary and expectations keep him from getting an A grade, but O’Reilly otherwise is having the kind of season we’ve come to expect from him. He’s still being leaned on heavily defensively, with 42.5% of his zone starts at 5v5 coming in the defensive zone while continuing to produce some offense. The concern is his possession numbers have dipped to 46.59% Corsi For. Some of this can be explained by the high d-zone starts, but at some point you’d like to see his line start driving possession.
Jason Pominville: B
Pominville’s return to Buffalo has been good for the most part. His 14 points in 22 games, at this point in his career, is about as much as you can ask. Unlike O’Reilly, Pominville has been used in a very offensive role, seeing only 20% of his zone starts at 5v5 coming in the defensive zone. Even still, he appears to be making the most of his favorable usage, and as long as he sees time with guys like Eichel and Kane he’ll produce at a steady rate.
Benoit Pouliot: B
If not for a slow start, Pouliot could have earned an A. He’s been everything you could ask for in a “value” signing. He’s tied for the team lead in 5v5 goals, and his possession numbers rank him fourth (49% CF). All of this for $1.15 million on a one-year deal. For a comparison, Patrick Marleau has scored as many 5v5 goals and signed for roughly $5 million more per year with Toronto. Pouliot has been a solid find for Jason Botterill.
Sam Reinhart: C+
Now that the smart kids are out of the way, we can start focusing on the underachievers. Five points in Reinhart’s last five games certainly is encouraging, but all that does is really show how bad things were for him before then. It’s not too much to ask of a second overall pick to drive possession and make plays. The encouraging part is through most of this first quarter-season Reinhart has been seeing some pretty heavy d-zone starts, especially when he was at center. Since his move to the wing, the zone start percentages have evened out and the points are starting to come. Perhaps he can become a mainstay on the wing, as it appears the center experiment is pretty much over.
Kyle Okposo: C
Okposo has had a tough last few months to say the very least, and it’s understandable why it may have taken some time to get back into the swing of things. But signing a long term deal in free agency comes with lofty expectations, and at this stage the Sabres can’t afford to play nice. If the points don’t start coming from Okposo, either at 5v5 or on the power play, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sabres tried to move his contract. There are encouraging signs, however. Okposo still has the best possession numbers on the team (50.24 CF%), and his individual shot attempts total ranks him sixth among forwards.
Johan Larsson: D
At a whopping 46.85%, Larsson is currently receiving the highest rate of defensive zone starts of any Sabres skater. As far as the bottom-six goes, he’s clearly the defensive/shut down guy. This excuses some of the poor offensive performance, at least relative to most bottom-six forwards. The real issue for Larsson is he isn’t really shutting anybody down. He’s got the worst goals for/against ratio on the team at minus-nine, and his penalties for and against is second-worst among forwards with 100 minutes played at minus-four. The Sabres will probably stick with Larsson in this role for the remainder of the season but really should start looking for an upgrade in the summer.
Jordan Nolan: D
He may have just played his best game as a Sabre, but overall Nolan’s play kind of makes you wonder why it was necessary to claim him. Granted, the effort has been there despite the team being in a miserable stupor, and his size does help him create some chances. However, he’s got the same glaring flaws that his predecessor Nic Deslauriers had. He’s been a possession nightmare, with opponents registering 49 more shot attempts than the Sabres when he is on the ice (40.39% CF). A minus-three penalties ratio ranks him second-worst among forwards, which sounds worse when considering he receives the lowest amount of ice time of any of the regulars. Same as with Larsson, the Sabres will probably stick with Nolan in this role for now but should eventually look to upgrade.
Seth Griffith: D
An AHL superstar clearly out of his element is probably the most accurate way to describe Griffith’s time with the Sabres thus far. The possession numbers are pretty good (50.19% CF) albeit in a sheltered role. But outside of that, Griffith isn’t really doing much of anything when he’s on the ice. He’s got the lowest individual shot attempts for and expected goals for of any forward. His role may be as simple as ensuring that the younger forwards spend the season in Rochester and are better prepared for next year.
Zemgus Girgensons: F
Remember the prediction during the tank era by some for Girgensons as the future captain? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. From projected two-way top-six forward to ‘where the heck do we play him?’, Girgensons has now officially hit rock bottom in his time as a Sabre. He has the second-worst CF% of any forward at 43.2, and his expected goals for percentage ranks him third-last to Moulson and Nolan. The worst part? He’s got the highest PDO (shooting percentage+save percentage when on ice) of any forward. In fact, he’s the only forward currently over the 100 mark which indicates some sort of regression is due. He’s signed for one more year after this but I’d be shocked if he’s brought back.
Matt Moulson: F-
An F is a little too generous, as in most cases people tend to learn from their failures and a needs improvement grade is the ultimate sugar coating. Seriously, though, we’re talking about zero points in 12 games for $5 million against the salary cap. As far as value goes, this is like the plasma TV of free agent signings. His possession number sits at 46%, fourth-worst among forwards, and his expected goals for percentage of 33.57 ranks second-last to Jordan Nolan. Well, hey, at least he hasn’t taken any penalties.
Rasmus Ristolainen: B+
If you’re looking for a positive in Housley’s time with the Sabres thus far, it might be his handling of Ristolainen. It’s a small sample size, having only played 13 games because of his injury, but the possession numbers are no longer an eye sore (49.77 CF%). Perhaps the more telling stat is his relative Corsi For percentage of 2.74, meaning the Sabres get a boost in shot attempts when he is on the ice. This stat has been the biggest flaw in Ristolainen’s game in the past, so it’s encouraging to see it much higher. His zone exits/entries is something to keep an eye on when he returns as he was seemingly turning the corner on both until he got hurt. His point totals keep him from seeing an A here though. It’s nice to see the underlying numbers trend upwards, but to offset his defensive play as an offensive minded defenseman, he’s going to have to put up the points as well.
Nathan Beaulieu: B
This one is probably going to leave you scratching your head. Beaulieu has made a few really big mistakes through the early part of this season, but the overall body of work shows you why Botterill was interested in the first place. He’s got the highest possession numbers of any d-man with a CF% of 49.88 and a relative CF% of 6.54, almost four more than the next best d-man. He’s also managed to draw five penalties, ranking him tops among the defense and tied for second-best on the team. It’s important to remember that Beaulieu was brought in for his offensive abilities and he will occasionally have rough moments in his own end. As long as he sees third-pair minutes and power play time, the Sabres should get good value out of him.
Marco Scandella: B-
It’s really tough to assess Scandella’s work through the first quarter. He’s been asked to play a defensive role that he’s not used to at minutes that are simply too much for him. Yet for the most part he seems to be holding his own. He’s had it tough the last little while paired with Justin Falk, who is normally better off as the seventh defenseman, but Scandella has managed to maintain a CF% of 48 and a positive relative CF% despite facing the other team’s top lines with Falk. The pair have the highest expected goals for of this current group, and Scandella has the highest individual expected goals for by a mile. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, he’s getting manhandled defensively with sky high zone entries against and the worst expected goals against of any d-man. It’s a shame the lack of depth forces him on the top pair because it looks like he’d make a terrific offensive number three.
Victor Antipin: C
It took him a little while to get used to the pace of the NHL, but fans are finally starting to see the best of Antipin. He’s become much more comfortable rushing the puck out of his own end and the passing has improved as well. The possession numbers are still pretty bad at 43.27%, especially when you factor in his favorable zone starts ratio. He does, however, have the second-most 5v5 points of any d-man and the most 5v5 primary points, which is a pretty big deal considering how little offense the blue line generates. The shot attempt numbers may continue to be bad moving forward, but much like Beaulieu, as long as too much isn’t asked of him defensively he should be a good value at his cap hit.
Jake McCabe: C-
McCabe’s season so far has been sort of a one step forward / two steps back kind of deal. It reminds me of Ristolainen’s season last year. The offensive potential that Housley and Botterill want is definitely there. He has the second-most shot attempts of any Sabres defenseman, the most 5v5 points and the best zone exits to failed exits ratio. Unfortunately, the defensive stats are crushing him this year and that’s with a semi-favorable zone start ratio. He’s got a team worst -52 Corsi differential and the highest expected goals against of any d-man. It’ll be interesting to see how Housley uses him once the defense is healthy. If they can find the right partner to help with the defensive numbers, he could be a real steal at 1.6 mil on the cap.
Justin Falk: D-
In fairness, the grade probably belongs to Housley here more than Falk as it’s ultimately his decision to play him on the top pair. Falk has clearly been overwhelmed since being paired up with Scandella in Ristolainen’s absence. His lack of foot speed is consistently being exposed by other team’s top lines, with a goals against per 60 of 2.93 (second-worst among sabres d-men) and he isn’t generating much offense. He’s got an individual expected goals for/60 of .07, which looks even worse compared to his partner’s 0.26, indicating that offensively Scandella is carrying him. He’s done an alright job defending the blue line on entries for a #7, but as stated before he’s clearly in over his head. His expected goals against/60 does sit at 1.98 lower than the actual which indicates goals going in aren’t exactly high quality shots. It might be worth it to give him a real opportunity on the third pairing once Ristolainen is healthy again.
Josh Gorges: F
Much like Larsson, Gorges is seeing heavy defensive zone starts but, like his forward counterpart, he’s not really doing much defensively. He’s got a team worst CF% of 38.59 and a relative CF% of -9.19. Gorges represents an era of defensive d-men that’s gone now. The modern era “defensive defenseman” is the guy who can limit the time the opponent sees in his end and quickly turn defense into offense. Defensemen who have quick sticks, great hockey sense and a terrific first pass are the kind you want on your team. Gorges’ shot blocking, while admirable in his era, is no longer enough to overcome his deficiencies. He’ll likely be dangled as trade bait on deadline day, but I wouldn’t expect too many takers.
Matt Tennyson: F
The only reason Tennyson isn’t graded an F- like Moulson is his salary; the impact otherwise has been pretty much the same. Perhaps the biggest swing and miss of any of Housley’s moves so far has been the over-usage of Tennyson. Take this in: Tennyson has a goals against per 60 of 4.82. That’s two more than the next-worst guy. He also has the highest Corsi Against/60 at 59%, the most shots on goal against at 32.87 and the worst goal differential 5v5 at minus-eight, one more than Scandella in seven fewer games and with easier zone starts. All of this while producing zero points. It’s safe to call the experiment a bust that shouldn’t be revisited.