It’s fair to say that is hasn’t been a smooth start to Patrik Berglund’s Buffalo Sabres career. Through six games, the veteran forward has been unable to get involved offensively and has been caught out of position a few times defensively.
Perhaps the most notable defensive gaff came on the Vegas Golden Knights first goal on Tuesday evening. Jonathan Marchessault blew past Berglund who was caught napping. When Berglund realized what was happening he was too late and Marchessault had an easy goal.
This Vegas goal could cost Patrik Berglund. Sabres’ lines:— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) October 17, 2018
Berglund extra, Larsson skating with Nelson as extra D pair. https://t.co/Aacv1G6R4M
That play could have earned Berglund a seat in the press box when the Sabres take on the San Jose Sharks tonight. He was the extra skater during practice and Vladimir Sobotka took his spot at center on his normal line.
Although, after practice yesterday Phil Housley said that Berglund has some minor injuries and that’s why he was limited. We’ll see how the lineup shakes out tomorrow.
A demotion would probably be warranted with how the first handful of games have gone for the big Swede. He looks slow at times and has been out of position on multiple occasions. Tuesday night in Vegas was the first time it really burned him.
This move could serve as a way to send a message to his hockey club that poor play won’t be tolerated and regardless of who you are, you’ll sit down if you’re not performing.
Having said that, Housley carries a lot of blame in this situation.
Let me explain...
Housley is using Berglund primarily as a shutdown center in even-strength situations. He’s matching him up with the opponents top line and on most nights it’s not working in the Savres favor.
Remember when Brad Marchand had four assists and David Pastrnak’s goal on opening night? How about Nathan MacKinnon’s two-goal evening when the Colorado Avalanche came to town? Also, don’t forget the three-point games we just saw from Marchessault and William Karlsson on Tuesday.
The opponent’s top lines are dominating the Sabres at even strength and it’s a primary reason that the 5 on 5 play has been ugly so far this season.
Housley using Berglund in this role looks to be a big mistake. Over the last few years with the St. Louis Blues, he’s been around a 43 percent oZS% offensive zone starts percentage) player at 5 on 5. Through six games this season Berglund has been a 27.1 oZS% at 5 on 5. A significant change from how he was used with the Blues.
The 30-year-old was put in offensive opportunities with the Blues, including getting some time on the power play, which contributed to his 17 goals in 57 games last season.
For you visual folks, here is a graph showing Berglund’s oZS% the last five years.
While of course, the majority of the blame for poor play falls on the player, it’s difficult to pick up confidence when you’re put in a position that doesn’t allow for a high probability of success.
Moving beyond Berglund quickly, we’re seeing a similar situation unfold with players like Vladimir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, Tage Thompson.
Sobotka has had a career around 50 oZS% usuage, he’s at 34.6 oZS% this season at even strength. Rodrigues who scored at a 45 point pace last season and had a 47.1 oZS%, is being deployed with a 17.4 oZS% this season.
Thompson is a young player with decent skill that should be used in sheltered offensive situations primarily. It’s no secret he’s not the strongest in his own end of the ice. Through six games he’s being deployed with a 25.6 oZS% at 5 on 5.
Housley is clearly executing a strategy of putting his first two lines (Eichel line and Mittelstadt line) in offensive positions. While using the Berglund line and Rodrigues line in heavy defensive situations.
It’s important to have players who can shut down the opponents top players, but relying this heavily on matchups could be a recipe for disaster. They don’t have the players on the roster who are familiar or have a successful history of playing in defensive situations like they’re currently being utilized.
In today’s style of hockey, the Sabres are better off rolling their lines and not putting such a strong focus on matching lines. Housley was so concerned with defensive zone draws to start the season he was sending out Sobotka and Berglund for the face offs with the Eichel line.
Thankfully that’s seemed to stop over the last few games, but that’s a strategy that is flawed for a variety of reasons, which I’ll save for another day.
The even strength play of this team has been a consistent issue through every game this season. These numbers give us a glimpse into why they’re having trouble maintaining possession of the puck and also why we’re some early struggles from Berglund.