With the 2013-14 season approaching quickly many Buffalo fans aren’t quite sure what to expect. Last year was more of a slow motion train wreck as far as expectations went, whether it was losing half the regular season to the second lockout in ten years, the firing of long-time coach Lindy Ruff, or the trading of team captain Jason Pominville at the deadline. A team that many predicted to make the playoffs the past few seasons is finally on the outside looking in, heading into one of the most pivotal seasons in recent history.
It’s no secret that speculation has and will continue to surround Sabre’s stars Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, both heading into the last year of their Sabres contract. Neither has the time left in their career to be part of a lengthy rebuild, and it is more than likely if this season goes poorly, neither will be looking to sign extensions in "Hockey Heaven".
I think it’s important to understand the numbers from the past in order to have reasonable expectations about the future, and if we can do this, maybe Sabres fans can go a season without being let down by our team.
To start the year Buffalo had one of the hottest first lines in the NHL. The combination of Hodgson, Vanek, and Pominville was on fire. The surprising statistic to note is that at season’s end, Hodgson and Vanek actually had less than 50% offensive zone starts, while both having around 50% offensive zone finishes. Their success scoring and moving the puck up ice, not playing soft minutes bodes well for the future, especially with how Hodgson has been playing in the pre-season.
The first line was about the only constant in the Sabres line up all year so the other forwards will be analyzed as one large unit. One forward who deserves congratulations is Marcus Foligno as he was the only forward to have a positive Corsi statistic (53.7%) on one of the worst possession teams in the league, while his 56.1% offensive zone starts certainly helped him, it shouldn’t take too much away from his success. One might assume that if I like possession statistics I might have a problem with Steve Ott and his 28.8% Corsi, but I promise you nothing could be further from the truth (Ott should be captain but that’s an argument for another time). Otter is a heart and soul player who had significantly less offensive zone starts than the rest of the team (41.9%) and once you look at Realtive Corsi with Quality of Competition (QoC) factored in, Otter actually was the best possession player on this team.
This brings me to my biggest problem, Mikhail Grigorenko. I understand that the CHL’s rule about where Grigorenko can play leaves the Sabres in a tough spot, as many believe he is too good for the QMJHL but not good enough for the NHL. Last year Buffalo did everything in their power to shelter Grigorenko’s minutes, so much so that he had the 3rd highest percentage of offensive zone starts in the league of anyone with at least 20 games played. Even with 66.7% of O-zone starts he 39.8% Corsi player. Below the Mendoza line, almost defying statistical possibility, this is unacceptable. Now I believe in Grigo, he’s a great prospect, with tons of skill and potential. I understand that he was playing low minutes, with low skill wingers, but even with all of those things considered, these numbers combined with his faceoff stats tell us that he should have spent last year with the Remparts. If you’re not convinced here are the "With or Without You" (WOWY) Corsi statistics for Grigorenko last year.
Grigo WOWY (via firstname.lastname@example.org)
There are a few important things to note here, the first and foremost point is that 50% is the neutral line for Corsi, which you wouldn’t be able to tell looking at Buffalo, but the point is, this is all bad. The best of this chart is that two players, Ehrhoff and Foligno, were able to find success as long as they were playing away from Grigorenko. The worst of this chart is that Grigorenko while playing with Myers, Stafford, and Regehr was an unmitigated disaster. The whole point of this chart though is to see that every single player that Grigorenko spent considerable time with was far more productive without him. Even Jochen Hecht (one of largest talent-voids on last year’s team) appears to have carried Grigorenko around on his back. In addition to all this, Grigorenko has been out-worked and out-classed by fellow first round pick Zemgus Girgensons this preseason and yet according to team brass it will be Grigorenko who will be sticking around for all 82 games this season. They have basically handed Grigorenko what he hasn’t earned and yet make Girgensons work his tail off for a lesser prize despite great performance after great performance.
My last point about the offense is about the combination of Kevin Porter and Brian Flynn who Ron Rolston called up shortly after taking over the team. I know many fans were displeased with the amount of ice time given to players that are, for the most part, not considered NHL-level talents. I believe Flynn and Porter were Rolston’s way of righting the ship defensively as each posted a 0.944 on ice team save percentage. The new coach was more or less thrown into the fire mid-season and using players that he knew could play his system from Rochester was able to post a winning record with the Sabres. If I was a betting man I’d predict Buffalo with play a much stronger game in its own end with Rolston at the helm.
To say that Buffalo’s defense was bad might be the understatement of the year. Almost every defenseman was mediocre at the best of times, but one shining star carried the day. Travis Yost posted an article earlier this summer about what exactly Christian Ehrhoff meant to the Sabres this past year (http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog.php?post_id=52175#.UkccVIZQEb0) and statistically he couldn’t be more correct. The WOWY numbers show that basically every single Sabres player experienced a significant boost in their possession numbers when Ehrhoff was on the ice. Ehrhoff has also been given the "C" twice in the preseason and I think that speaks more to how much he mans to the team, than to his actual shot at being made captain.
The Sabres made sure that this season’s defense would at the very least look different than last year’s group, trading away Leopold, Regehr, and Sekera for draft picks and Jamie McBain. They also made an investment in the future by using both first round picks on big, high skill defenseman. Just like last year there is a competition for the starting jobs on Buffalo’s blue-line through training camp and preseason. We know that Ehrhoff and Myers will be the team’s top defenseman barring an injury, but after that a lot is up in the air.
Ehrhoff – had a great season last year and would need only to repeat it to remain the best defenseman on this team.
Myers – had another year of disappointment, and appears to be in continued decline after his Calder winning year. Yet his potential upside is still huge and has looked to have found his game and his confidence so far this preseason, even see him throw hits!
Pysyk – played in 19 games last year and actually had the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts on the team at 45.6%. This is another case of Rolston trusting players he is familiar with and Pysyk has really impressed me this preseason. He does not lose his man or the puck when battling in the corners, which when you consider his size is astounding. He makes good decisions and quick passes, look for Pysyk to join the team full time this year. If Buffalo can improve defensively this year it will be on the back of rookies like Pysyk.
Sulzer – now I realize I could take some heat for this but I actually think Sulzer is capable of winning a spot in the top six this year. He certainly had his fair share of offensive zone starts (53.8%) and talented line-mates (most frequently playing with Ehrhoff, Hodgson and Ennis) but he and Ehrhoff were an effective combination when both were healthy. I would keep the pairing together as long as they continue to experience success, if they struggle then Sulzer becomes a healthy scratch candidate.
Ristolainen – hasn’t looked out of place during his preseason stint with the Sabres but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is ready for the grind of a full 82 game season. I’m a big fan of his and he deserves to stick around for the nine games that prospects can play without expending their rookie status for the following season. I’m not entirely sure how the Sabres should handle the situation with Rasmus as he originally stated he would be returning to Finland if he failed to make the starting line-up, but it appears as if he is now on board with the idea of playing in Rochester. I don’t want to have Rasmus be rushed like Grigorenko was last year but given the alternatives on defense, if I had to choose, I’d probably have him stick around this year.
Weber – is Buffalo’s simple defensive defenseman who is capable of playing tough minutes in his own end night after night and bringing a bit of physicality to the current blue line. His numbers aren’t exactly impressive but he is a role player for Buffalo’s defense core and he could make this team based on nothing other than his relationship with Ott. Mike will probably stick around as a 5/6 defenseman for Buffalo for the foreseeable future or until more of the team’s defensive prospects are ready.
Tallinder - would be my choice for this season’s 7th defenseman. I know we traded to acquire him, and like many of you I’m still not sure why, but if he does bring anything to the team it is a veteran presence and possibly a mentor for Myers. In my opinion he can do this without having to actually play every game, and he just hasn’t looked fantastic in preseason games, yet I could still certainly see him making the team’s line up for Wednesday’s game in Detroit.
McBain – oh dear. I really don’t know what nice to say about the decision to acquire Jamie McBain from Carolina. He was criticized my his old GM for not working hard enough, and I’ve paid special attention to him during preseason as he has been behind almost every major gaff I’ve noticed. Even when it’s not personally his fault, things just seem to go wrong around him, and that my friends is extremely worrisome. I realize how bad the Sabres power play was last season but I really don’t see McBain being the answer. I would be very surprised to see him in Buffalo for more than 20 games this season, at this point I would almost consider playing him at right wing with the injury situation and Stafford’s continued regression into a total waste of space and ice time. To clarify I don’t actually ever see that happening, I just played with the idea since he has shown he can score goals if nothing else.
Zadorov – should probably spend the season with London as there is no reason to rush the young defenseman. I was hoping he would also be given a nine game tryout but with the injury to his hand suffered in the Sabres last preseason game this is looking doubtful.
Now something you should know before reading this is that Ryan Miller has always been my favourite player on this team. Call me a homer or whatever else you please, I actually believe wholeheartedly that Miller will play out his career as a Sabre. Whether this is the right thing to do or not I will leave up to debate, but seeing as there isn’t a high demand for goaltenders in a cap-reduced year there would be little return in a trade. I’ve probably watch every interview, media piece and sound-byte of Ryan’s over the past three years and the stark difference between his attitude and Vanek’s, is that Ryan actually seems to love the city he plays for. I’m not saying he’ll take a pay cut to stay here, but since all the west coast teams are rock solid between the pipes and there is no chance of him playing at home in Michigan thanks to Jimmie Howard’s monster contract extension, I see him staying in Buffalo. As for anyone who believes that he is simply past his prime, I urge you to watch games from past seasons and to try and fault Miller when goals are allowed to the horrendous defense in front of him.
As for Jhonas Enroth and Matt Hackett, I’ve never been convinced that Enroth will ever be a starting goalie in the NHL. A good goaltender looks comfortable in his crease and his motions and body position exude a confident swagger that an elite athlete needs to inspire confidence in his teammates, and Enroth has just never given me that. I understand his numbers aren’t horrible but he looks uneasy between the pipes and is prone to letting in soft goals. Matt Hackett looks to be the more likely candidate as "goaltender of the future" when Miller finally retires or moves on; he looks much more comfortable in net and preformed great in preseason action.
In conclusion there is no way Buffalo can disappoint worse than they have in recent history because the expectations simply aren’t there this year. But many teams with young players have experienced success when there is no pressure to do well and Buffalo has the pieces in place that overachieving this year is certainly possible. This year will showcase a lot of young talent and will come with its share of growing pains but it’ll be a ton of fun to watch. As for predictions, Steve Ott will be named captain, Stafford will be the one moved at the deadline, both PP and PK will struggle and find themselves in the bottom 10 in the league, and despite all the media attention Miller will resign and Vanek will be the one to walk and head to Minnesota.
Thank you for reading,
Keegan J. Miller