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Sabres have to be better 5-on-5

How many times have we heard Head Coach Lindy Ruff say "We have to better 5-on-5" or "We just weren't good enough 5-on-5 tonight" or maybe "It's our 5-on-5 play, it's just not good enough".  If you're like me you have heard Ruff say this after various losses this season and the reality is he's right.  Sure...we all knew that was a concern but I didn't realize how bad it actually was until I started to break down the numbers.  If you have a weak stomach you may want to turn away right now because this is not a pretty sight.

5-5 5-4 5-3 4-4 4-3 3-3 3-4 3-5 4-5 EN PS Total
Goals For 50 19 6 1 1 0 0 0 3 1 0 81
Goals Against 62 0 0 5 0 0 1 1 11 3 0 83


As the numbers above demonstrate, the Sabres are struggling in even strength situations.  They are a minus 12 on when 5-on-5 and minus four when 4-on-4 (an area that this team used to thrive).   Numbers like we see above are usually the numbers of a team at the bottom of the standings but the Sabres special teams have been good keeping them in the playoff hunt. 

The penalty kill is currently ranked number two in the NHL.   They have allowed only 13 power play goals in 30 games while scoring three times shorthanded.  It's amazing to think that this team is a minus 10 while shorthanded but a minus 16 while playing at even strength.

What is the reason for the Sabres even strength struggles through the first 30 games?

New Philosophy: Commitment to Defense

Let's face it...this is something this Sabres team is not used to.  Does it make it wrong?  No, it's just different.  The team has proved that when they play this philosophy they can win hockey games if they take advantage of their offensive chances.  Playing their new style is not much different than the old style.  Lindy Ruff is asking players to back-check and to help the defense instead of thinking offense first.  This is limiting the number of offensive chances the Sabres get and they haven't really taken advantage of many of their opportunities which is lowering their goal total.

The new mentality has to be at least part of the Sabres struggles but the numbers are slightly misleading as well.  Buffalo has allowed a lot of goals in some of their losses including a stretch in mid-November when they allowed 18 in only three games.

Lack of Depth

To some people this is not surprise but I was floored when I seen these numbers.  Buffalo has a total of 51 even strength goals scored this season.  50 have been scored while 5-on-5 and one goal while playing 4-on-4.  That is a low number of even strength goals but of more concern is where the goals come from.  The big three (Thomas Vanek-13, Jason Pominville-6 and Derek Roy-7) have scored 26 of them.  That leaves a total of 25 goals scored by the rest of the team.

Early in the season I did a post where I was praising the team for getting secondary scoring but that has dropped off considerably.  If we do that same chart with the lines that were used on Saturday those numbers will be dramatically different.

Line # Lines Even Strength Points
1 Vanek-Hecht-Pominville 80GP 20G-17A-37P
2 Gerbe-Roy-Stafford 62GP 11G-14A-25P
3 Paille-Gaustad-Kotalik 72GP 7G-11A-18P
4 MacArthur-Mair-Afinogenov 86GP 7G-12A-19P


When this team was on top of the league and winning the Presidents Trophy they had scoring from every one of their lines. Keep in mind that Derek Roy was a third line Center on that team and now I refer to him as one of the big three.  That says a lot about where this team is at offensively.

If this team is entertaining ideas of being a playoff team they need to be better while even strength.  It comes down to some of the second and third line players being better offensively than they have been.  Players like Jochen Hecht who scored 18 even strength goals last season and has one through 30 games this season.  It's not just Hecht that is struggling however.  Drew Stafford had 15 last season and has four this year, Daniel Paille had 16 last season and has three this season.  Even Roy (23 last year, seven this year) and Pominville (24 last season, six this season) have to be better.