Last night's loss to Carolina brought the Sabres to the halfway point in this shortened season with underwhelming results. Many of us pointed to a well stocked stable of capable defenseman and a great goaltender as reason for optimism before the year began. However, the Sabres flat out can't keep the puck out of their own net. Contributing to this problem is poor individual play by defenseman, system breakdowns, poor team d-zone coverage, and overall level of battle/ compete (to Rolston's credit, the Sabres have shown improvement in these areas since he took over.) Yet, to me, the biggest problem is a lack of defensive talent amongst the forwards.
Playing team defense at a high level is not just about guys buying in, or experience, or hard work. These are all contributing factors, but in today's game there needs to be an intentionality in bringing in defensive forwards that are capable of playing a top 9 role night in and night out, especially centerman.
I have really enjoyed watching Hodgson start to put it all together offensively this year, and start living up to his potential and the lofty standards I believe he sets for himself. That being said, I think he has always been somewhat of an offensive phenom, and that has hurt his defensive game. For a lot of NHL teams that would be fine for a young, offensive centerman, because there is a counterpart on the roster who plays well in his own zone, and consistently wins the puck possession necessary to keep pucks out of the net. Teams can win with this kind of combination, managing matchups, and playing to their strengths. (Ex. Sedin & Kessler Combo) Guys who play at a very high level at both ends are rare, and thats what makes them extremely valuable and almost impossible to acquire any other way than the draft (Guys like Toews, Kopitar, the Staals, etc.) When you look down the roster, there is neither a dominate 2 way center, or a defensive specialist.
This said, you have to play with the players on your roster, and I think that in light of defensive deficiencies, the Sabres should mix up their top 9 to give them the best chance of winning hockey games. The top line of Vanek, Hodgson, and Pominville is the kind of high octane line that would be best complimented by and really strong defensive 2nd or 3rd line. Last year, Kaleta, Goose, and Gerbe did this pretty effectively. But alas, no goose, so thats not really an option. While the Goose trade is a nice longterm move for the team, it has proved to be much more of a "sell" than most of us thought. It's funny, I remember Miller being really vocal about how he didn't like the move, and that Gaustad would be tough to replace. I, like many others, wrote this off as a teammate being emotional about the departure of a longtime friend. Its looking more and more like he was spot on. So, I will turn to another pearl of postgame wisdom that Miller tossed out in one of the losses leading up to Ruff's firing. Miller said something along the lines of, we either need to lock it down defensively, or open it up completely, because we aren't committing to one approach, and thats no way to win in the NHL. Given the current personnel, I say redistribute some of the wealth on the top line, and create 3 more even lines all capable of scoring goals. I think that this would enable the team to play at a faster pace, take advantage of their young legs and depth of skilled offensive players. To do this, you have to give Grigs a regular shift. At this point why not, i'm selling the confidence argument... he seems to be taking everything in stride, moved half way around the world at an early age, and lives on is own i believe?
Just to be clear, this is not the long term model i think the team should follow. But for now, with these players, its time to recognize that defense is not their strong suit and let the boys create some offense top to bottom. Here is what I would try just to see how it goes.
Vanek - Hodgson - Gerbe
Ott- Ennis - Pominville
Foligno - Grigs - Stafford
Hecht- Porter - Kaleta/Flynn
(Honestly wouldn't mind Hecht being waived and keeping flynn when PK comes back. The 4th line would be good energy, and help in skating opponents into the ground. Either way can't do that with scott in the line up, and I have been pleased with him as a healthy scratch against teams with no large threats.)
What do you guys think? How would you reshuffle if you could?