As the Buffalo Sabres continue to show improvement on defense this season, poor individual performances are being held under the microscope to a greater extent. In seasons past, it was tough to single out a particular player when the entire unit was floundering as a whole.
Since the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, Marco Scandella has been the weakest link on the Buffalo defense.
At the start of the season, that’s not a sentence that many people would have expected to read, but with the influx of young talent, and the improvement shown by veterans like Nathan Beaulieu and Zach Bogosian (improved health more than anything in this case, but you get the idea), Scandella is no longer one of the Sabres’ top-six defensemen.
With a relative Corsi of -5.26 at five-on-five, he ranks dead last among all Buffalo defenders who have dressed this season. That represents a near five point drop from the numbers he posted last season, a year where many agreed that he looked over-matched on the top pairing. Averaging 23:19 of ice-time per-game, he ranked second on the Sabres behind Rasmus Ristolainen in that category. For that reason alone, fans were generally willing to see if improvements would take place with a reduced role in 2018-19.
Scandella’s performance is particularly concerning because it represents a regression from last season despite his ice time being reduced by nearly four minutes per game at 18:29. His role has certainly been scaled back, but same issues we saw last season still exist so, what’s the problem? Only a marginal difference exists between his zone-start ratio from this season to last, and while he hasn’t spent any time on the man-advantage this year, it still doesn’t explain his abysmal numbers at even-strength.
Game-in and game-out Scandella consistently loses his man, particularly in high-danger areas (a place where he is supposed to be proficient) and provides very little as an outlet passer, often choosing to fling the puck along the boards rather than find his forwards on the break-out. His 20 giveaways so far this season put him on pace for a career-high.
And don’t even mention the 10-second wind-up on every shot he elects to take from the point which miss the intended target with a consistency that rivals death and taxes.
Simply put, the 28-year-old veteran has become a lead anchor for anyone he’s been paired with for an extended period of time. While he has posted a positive Corsi percentage with Rasmus Dahlin and Jake McCabe (60:19 and 60:54 minutes together, respectively), he has been an absolute drag on the two players with whom he spent the most time in Bogosian and Ristolainen (roughly 181 and 186 minutes, respectively). Phil Housley’s insistence on making the Ristolainen-Scandella combination “a thing” has been one of the biggest acts of futility the head coach has pursued during his short tenure.
This season alone, the pair has posted a Corsi of 38.62, which is even worse than their mark of 46.83 from last season. Away from Scandella, Ristolainen’s Corsi is nearly 11 points higher, which begs the question - why does the Sabres’ coaching staff still see this pairing as even remotely viable?
In short, it has become increasingly difficult to find anything that Scandella does well, though he does still possess one solitary area of proficiency (which could be a biggest reason why he’s avoided the press box this season).
The penalty kill.
Only Jake McCabe could be argued as the better penalty-killing defender on the team. In fact, Scandella’s shorthanded relative Corsi of .57 is second only to McCabe’s mark of 2.93. His 90:43 minutes spent on the penalty-kill this season are also second on the team (Bogosian) among Sabres defenders and he has been a big part of the reason why Buffalo boasts the league’s sixth-best PK unit.
That’s it. You could scour his statistical history for days and that’s the only positive mark on his record since he first donned a Sabres uniform (and really, even before that). Just one time in the last five years has he been a positive Corsi player and it has become increasingly evident that any clout he still possesses among fans rests in name recognition alone.
At this point, the only way keeping him as a regular in the top-six makes any sense is if he’s being shopped for a trade. Making him a healthy scratch would almost surely diminish his value in that regard.
Housley has made it a point to sideline both young players and veterans due to poor performance this season, and unless Jason Botterill is attempting to trade Scandella, it remains unclear as to why he remains immune to this precedent while Beaulieu and Lawrence Pilut (two players who have performed more-than admirably this year) have been cycled in and out of the lineup. To go a step further and reward his inefficiency with time on the top pairing defies logic.
Lineup optimization has been the popular criticism placed on Housley as of late (and for good reason) and while the Sabres’ defense has certainly improved to an extent under his watch, he seems oblivious to the group’s most glaring area of concern. If Scandella’s performance against the Edmonton Oilers last night wasn’t enough to help Housley see that he belongs in the press box, then his already questionable ability to accurately evaluate the roster should be put even further into question.
Corsi statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey
Team defense pair shot charts courtesy of Sean Tierny at Charting Hockey