We’re 43 games into the season and we continue to talk about the poor defensive zone coverage with the Buffalo Sabres. Yes, for a week or so it looked to be getting better, but now we’re back to where we were for most of the season.
Teams can be bad at defense and let’s not put lipstick on this pig. This particular club struggles defensively. That being said, the mistakes that are being made are hockey 101 level errors. Leaving players alone in front of the net, blind passes up the boards, bad pass up the boards and well just passing in general.
It really makes you wonder after over half of the season, why this team can’t figure out the simple things in the game. Well, after Tuesday’s 7-4 beatdown at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets we got some insight into what’s happening from head coach Phil Housley.
“The thing for me and it's very evident and I continue to talk about it is our lack of respect and urgency playing defense,” said Housley in his post-game press conference. He’s preaching to the choir here. He went on to say, “that’s not only in the defensive zone, that starts in the offensive zone.”
In today’s NHL with how quick of a pace it’s played at, you have to be good at both ends of your ice. A lazy play or errant pass in the offensive end can send a team on the rush the other way. Before you know it the puck is in your net 10 to 15 seconds after you had sustained offensive zone pressure.
Compounding the offensive zone turnovers is the inability for players to recognize who to pick up in transition. “We sit and wait at times, we’re hoping that somebody’s gonna make a play and we don’t get back and then their D are ahead of us,” Housley said.
Too many times this season you see players make the wrong read or are caught flat-footed watching the play develop in front of them instead of reacting. The head coach thinks it’s just a lack of urgency, “It’s just having that urgency to kill a play, to suck it up and play solid defense.”
The Sabres have allowed the eighth most shots against per game entering tonight at 32.5 and are tied for the second most goals allowed with the Arizona Coyotes at 150. That’s 3.48 goals against per game. Combine that with the second worst goal differential (-52) in the NHL and you can start to see why the Sabres are at the bottom.
It wasn’t just Housley talking about the bad performance on defense Tuesday night. Jack Eichel added his two cents saying, “As a group I think we all need to work on our play in our own zone, breaking the puck out as a unit, helping our goalies out, I think we’re just giving up way too much right now.”
That brings me to my next sticking point, breakouts. Why can’t the Sabres sustain pressure or attack the opponent with the little speed they have on the roster? They honestly might be one of the worst teams I’ve seen at executing a breakout pass.
It’s rare to see a puck find the tape of the blade. The passes are either in the skates, behind the intended target or way out in front. In the beginning of the season, you could explain that as a team getting used to playing together. That doesn’t hold water 43 games into the season.
The poor passing results in the rush having to be slowed down to recover the puck, which allows the defense to catch up. Sometimes they must regroup, again allowing the defense to get back into position. In most instances, it results in a turnover and the puck right back in the Sabres defensive zone.
So, you may be asking yourself, how is it fixed? Well, Housley and Jason Botterill have to figure out what main issue/s are. We seem to have a team for the second straight season who isn’t completely buying into what a coach is telling them to do. Also, appear to have a team that doesn’t commit to playing defense. “I think there’s a lot of cheat in our game… I think that they think points are more important than playing solid defense,” Housley said on Tuesday night.
I’ll go back to saying something I said earlier. Unless they want to fully buy into being a 200-foot hockey club. This sort of performance we’re seeing this season is going to continue. This is the biggest task for Botterill. Finding players who want to play the game the right way.