Now sitting at .500 through six games, the Buffalo Sabres are an improved, yet still deeply flawed hockey team. On a game-by-game basis, they’ve done their best Jekyll and Hyde impression, looking cohesive one night and disastrous the next.
Following Tuesday night’s ugly road loss to a Vegas team whom the Sabres beat handily on home ice just eight days prior, fans have placed the blame in several different areas. While it’s always easy to call out an individual player on a given night (something fans on social media have made a habit of doing), when analyzing the game data, it’s relatively clear where the team’s maddening inconsistency stems from.
We’ll start in goal. To be quite frank, we could very well be talking about a 1-5 (or worse) hockey team at this point were it not for the performances of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark in the early going. In five starts, Hutton currently holds a .909 save percentage. At first glance, that isn’t a great mark for a starting goaltender, but his high-danger save percentage of .857 is good for sixth in the league among goalies who have played at least 200 minutes.
In Ullmark’s lone start, he posted 36 saves in a shutout victory over the Arizona Coyotes (a team that has yet to score an even-strength goal this season, but more on that later). In the three games where the Sabres have not had elite (.946 save-percentage or better, a number based on the lowest percentage posted in a Sabres victory thus far) goaltending, they’ve lost in spectacular fashion, scoring only twice. With this in mind, it’s fair to wonder just how many wins they’d have at this point with last year’s goalie tandem who only achieved a mark of .946 or better 15 times all of last season (10 times with Robin Lehner, and five with Chad Johnson between the pipes).
So why aren’t the Sabres winning games (or even staying competitive) without stellar play in net? Simply put, a lot of the offensive ineptitude from last season has carried over. Their shot-generation at five-on-five has been downright dreadful, averaging less than 19 shots on goal per game at even-strength, the third-lowest rate in the league. Only once through six-games have they out-shot their opponent at five-on-five. Even worse, the Sabres rank fifth from the bottom in even-strength goals with eight.
Against Vegas on Tuesday night, team Corsi at even-strength was heavily skewed in the Golden Knights’ favor as the Sabres were overwhelmed by a much more offensively aggressive team.
A similar (though not quite as extreme) ratio was observed in the Sabres’ victory over Arizona on Saturday, where once again we saw a Buffalo team that was bested in shot attempts while still achieving victory due in large part to superior goaltending.
Interestingly enough, Buffalo is actually 0-2 this season when out-shooting their opponents, but in both of those games (against Boston and Colorado, respectively), their high-danger chances were held to a minimum.
Fortunately, the Sabres have been slightly more effective on the power-play with 37 shots on goal on 24 opportunities with the man-advantage this season, good for 13th in the league to this point. Despite an above-average shots-per-opportunity ratio, they rank 20th with a conversion percentage of 16.67. Twice on the young season the Sabres power-play unit has been held scoreless with six or more opportunities in a given game. With the firepower they possess, particularly on the first unit, that is completely unacceptable.
So, what needs to change? Well, for one, the Sabres need to be much better at zone-entry, both at even-strength and with the man-advantage. It’s a rarity to see someone not named Eichel, Skinner or Mittelstadt actually carry the puck into the offensive zone without being immediately thwarted, or simply dumping it into the corner. Part of the problem has been attributed to a lack of depth, but with only two of the team’s eight even-strength goals coming from the top line, there’s blame to go around.
As we saw against the Bruins, Avalanche and in the latest tilt with Vegas, teams really don’t need to do anything fancy to stifle the Sabres’ attack. For this reason (among several others) a healthy portion of the fan base has turned their frustrations toward Phil Housley, who many perceived as a master tactician when he was hired.
Though it’s still far too early in the season to call for a coach’s head (especially one with a 3-3 record and a completely overhauled roster), the second-year bench boss has made some interesting decisions pertaining to player deployment.
One of the more extreme examples is the fact that Evan Rodrigues has started in the offensive zone a staggeringly low 17.4% of the time. Even more reprehensible is Tage Thompson’s offensive zone start percentage of 25.6. Housley also deserves a whack for Thompson’s average TOI of 11:51 per game. If he planned on using him like that from the start, then it totally defeats the purpose of not having him start the year in Rochester.
Housley himself cited a lack of quality NHL ice time as the main reason for sending Alex Nylander down, so it’s unclear why the same line of thinking didn’t apply to Thompson, who is at a similar stage in his development.
At the end of the day, it will take some time to truly gauge just how much better this year’s team is in comparison to the 2017-18 squad, but a lot of the same issues seem to have persisted in the early going. There is no longer any excuse for this team to come out guns blazing one game, then totally flat the next, a trend that has certainly carried over. Come December, if a majority of the the Sabres’ wins have come as a result of stellar goaltending in the face of consistent, negatively skewed shot attempt ratios, then it will be time to worry. Until then, all we can do is hold out hope that the new-look lineup is just working out some early-season kinks en route to a marked improvement.
Corsi Numbers Provided By Corsica.Hockey
Corsi Chart Graphics Provided By NaturalStatTrick