In Jason Botterill’s first offseason as GM of the Buffalo Sabres, his most notable acquisition came in the form of a trade with the Minnesota Wild. As part of a deal which most fans felt the Sabres got the better end of, he was able to acquire defenseman Marco Scandella.
On a cap-strapped Minnesota roster flush with talented blueliners, the 28-year-old was the odd-man out. A $4 million cap hit is a steep price for a player who had been forced down the depth chart, serving primarily on the third pair in 2016-17.
As soon as the deal was made official, fans started penciling Scandella’s name beside Rasmus Ristolainen. The long-awaited, defensively responsible presence to help boost Ristolainen’s offensive game had finally arrived. No longer would fans have to watch the young Finn lug around an aging Josh Gorges or an overwhelmed Jake McCabe.
Perhaps that initial projection was a bit over-optimistic. That’s not to say Scandella hasn’t performed well. As a mainstay on the top pairing this season, he has provided a steady two-way presence, producing 20 points in 71 games, a seven-point improvement from 2016-17. His relative Corsi numbers also experienced a significant jump from last season. At 0.6, he is on track to finish the season with his highest possession metrics since 2014-15.
Incidentally, Ristolainen’s advanced statistics have made a quantum-leap beside his new partner. Last year, the Sabres’ undisputed top defender had the second worst relative Corsi percentage on the roster at -3.2 percent. As it stands, he is expected to finish the season with the best relative Corsi of his career at 2.8, a six percent improvement. After three seasons of being forced to carry inferior partners, he has finally been able to expand his offensive role, even if it doesn’t always show on the scoresheet.
Over his last 17 games, Ristolainen has registered 12 points. If that pace keeps up for the remainder of the year, it will mark his third consecutive season with at least 40 points from the back end. Scandella has been the key element in Ristolainen’s improved possession metrics. There is still room for improvement, but serving on the top pair (not to mention the top penalty-kill unit), for a team that will finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, both of their respective statistical achievements are pretty impressive.
On top of his statistical accolades, Scandella ranks second on the team in average ice time at 23:37 per game. On paper, that’s not exactly praise-worthy for a first pairing defenseman, however, it represents a 5:17 increase from the workload he was tasked with in Minnesota last season. With such an expanded role, it puts a few of his unprecedented defensive gaffes into perspective.
There is something to be said for his leadership acumen as well. On several occasions, Scandella hasn’t been shy in his criticizing his teammate’s lack of consistent effort. Early in the season, he attributed the team’s rough start to a lack of “pride” in the locker room. As Botterill continues the increasingly difficult task of curing the poisonous culture in the Sabres organization, he needs to pursue more veterans who are willing to call out the underachievers. In that regard, he has been and should continue to be, part of the solution.
All of that being said, Scandella (and probably Ristolainen, but that’s a debate for another time) isn’t a fit on the first pairing beyond this season. As the 2017-18 campaign has worn on, it is clear that fatigue as a result of matching up against every team’s top scorers has caught up to him. Despite the fact that he has been a valuable asset for the Sabres’ the defensive corps, on a contending team, he would be best suited as a middle-pair safety valve for a puck-carrying defenseman (like Brendan Guhle, perhaps?).
But that’s the problem - the Sabres aren’t remotely close to anything resembling a playoff squad. There is certainly something to be said about their spotty work ethic, but at the end of the day, there simply isn’t enough talent or depth on the roster to allow Phil Housley to effectively execute his gameplans.
With just three weeks remaining in what quickly became a hugely disappointing campaign, Botterill is in the process of reassessing the entire roster. Part of that task will include the pursuit of a legitimate top-end two-way defender on the left side. He simply cannot go into the 2018-19 season by forcing Scandella to match up against the best forwards in the NHL night-in and night-out.
Overall, given the situation, Scandella has proven to be an extremely valuable asset this season. There is no question that he has a place on the roster moving forward. With a contract that takes him through the 2019-20 season, his cap hit is easily palatable for a top-four blueliner. He’ll never be the subject of criticism in terms of effort, and his ability to contribute in a pinch offensively shouldn’t be overlooked.
Though Minnesota finds themselves in the thick of the playoff conversation and the Sabres are stuck playing with the lottery simulator, Buffalo still got the best player in the deal. The key now will be Botterill’s ability to adjust the roster to put Scandella (among others) in a situation where he can truly maximize his skill set. Easier said than done, but if the Sabres expect to improve next season, reinforcements are needed across the roster. For the better part of a decade, this franchise has forced players into roles they aren’t suited for. Time will tell if Botterill has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors.
Advanced Statistics per Hockey-Reference.com