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Strategy and poor execution causing penalty kill struggles

The Sabres penalty kill has been a big issue early on in the season

Buffalo Sabres v San Jose Sharks Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The special teams for the Buffalo Sabres have let them down so far this season. The poor penalty kill and power play have arguably cost the Sabres a few games to this point.

I’m going to save the power play that has gone 1 for 21 in the last four games for another day. Today my focus will be on the penalty kill that’s tied for the fourth-worst kill percentage (69.6%) in the league entering play tonight.

Last season, the penalty kill was an issue for this team as well. They finished ranked 22 in the NHL with a 77.9 percent kill rate. For the Sabres to rebound this season, the special teams have needed to turn things around, but that hasn’t happened thus far.

Phil Housley and his coaching staff have decided to deploy 1-2-1 penalty kill structure to start this season. In theory, this isn’t the worst idea if the strategy is executed properly.

The point of this type of penalty kill is to keep everything to the outside and force low-percentage shots from far away.

News flash, the Sabres are currently executing this strategy as poorly as they can.

This first screenshot gives a good glimpse of how the Sabres like to set up when they’re down a man.

There are a few things that jump out in this shot. First, look at all the space the Sharks players in the umbrella (three players at the top of the screen) are given. This is a theme you’ll notice as we go each of these screen grabs.

Second, you’ll notice how the player in front of the net can just stand there without anyone challenging him or close enough to react quickly to stop a rebound opportunity. Again, a theme you’ll see as we go here.

As this play rolls the puck goes to Erik Karlsson on the top right side of the screen and Marco Scandella skates out toward him briefly, leaving Joonas Donskoi all alone in front. Karlsson shoots and the rebound goes off of Donskoi and into the net.

Due to all the space, he’s given, Karlsson can get the puck and get the shot off with ease.

Let’s move to the next Sharks power play goal only a few minutes later. In this screenshot, Jake McCabe does stay closer to Joe Pavelski in front of the net, but it won’t matter.

Again, Logan Couture is given some space to skate to the top of the face off circle and rip a shot by Hutton as three Sabres defenders fail to interrupt his shot.

Onto power play goal number three for the Sharks. Let’s see if you can guess who scores the goal in this screenshot.

Kevin Lebanc has space (picking up the theme here) to let a shot go and Pavelski is just standing alone in front allowed to screen Hutton. He’s then able to tap in the rebound of the shot with ease because Zach Bogosian is too far away to do anything.

We’re not done yet. Let’s look at a few goals from the game against the Colorado Avalanche. Not to beat a dead horse, but check out space at the top of the umbrella.

This time two Avalanche players are just allowed to stand in front as Casey Nelson and Nathan Beaulieu watch the puck.

It starts to get really frustrating now.

The premise behind this structure is to close down the middle of the ice and like I said force low percentage shots from the outside. On the screenshot above, Tyson Jost eventually rotates to the middle of the ice and deflects a Tyson Barrie point shot past Hutton.

Let’s quickly look at the other power-play goal the Avalanche scored just a few minutes later. This time I circled the guy who scores (Colin Wilson).

Shot from the top of the umbrella comes from Sam Girard, with a player again standing freely in front of Hutton providing a screen. Hutton makes the save and the rebound bounces out front, Wilson, is able to hammer home the rebound easily.

They’re getting the opponents to take shots from the outside, so that’s the good part. The bad part is they’re consistently making two huge mistakes.

If this is going to be your plan on the penalty kill, the players in the middle of the ice scoring goals are inexcusable. The other big issue is allowing the players in front to be able to tap in loose pucks. The defender must be close enough to the forward to be able to react and tie him up on a rebound situation.

Another issue is that they appear to be playing too compact in the middle of the ice. It looks like the four players are taking up as little space as possible in the defensive zone. To play this strategy properly, they need to do a better job of closing down on the shots from outside. It’s too easy for the opponent to pick where they want to shoot with all the time they’re given.

The two players in the middle usually don’t move very far from the center of the ice, instead of rotating properly towards the puck and putting pressure on the opponent.

Long story short, it’s too easy.

A lot of this falls back onto coaching. Either they’re being coached to defend this way on the penalty kill, which we just looked at it is full of bad ideas or the players are somehow not grasping how to properly execute the strategy through seven games.

If the Sabres are going to continue to use this plan of action on the penalty kill without making adjustments, it’s going to be difficult to win games on a consistent basis.