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Who Are the Sabres’ Top Six Defensemen?

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Using analytics to determine who should be in the starting lineup

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Tampa Bay Lightning
Lawrence Pilut has had a strong impact on the Sabres’ d-core this season
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most improved areas on the Buffalo Sabres roster this year from last is the depth of the defense. As expected, first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin has vastly improved the d-core and has had an immediate impact in the top four. This has allowed his supporting cast to directly slot into more favorable roles, and the unit as a whole is looking promising for years to come.

So far this year, the Sabres have dressed a total of 11 defensemen and really haven’t missed a beat. The list includes:

- Rasmus Dahlin

- Rasmus Ristolainen

- Zach Bogosian

- Jake McCabe

- Marco Scandella

- Nathan Beaulieu

- Casey Nelson

- Lawrence Pilut

- Matt Tennyson

- Matt Hunwick

- Brendan Guhle

So, what’s the issue? Well the answer to that question centers around the rookie Lawrence Pilut. Recently named to the AHL All-Star Game, the Swedish defenseman has come up and played very well for the Sabres.

His puck-moving skills and smooth skating have fans clamoring for him to be in the lineup full-time. The problem is, when healthy, there were at-least seven defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart. So, who has earned the right to be in the lineup every night? Who’s on the bubble? Let’s take a deep dive into some charts to envision what the ideal top six Buffalo defense looks like:

Production

The chart above shows the offensive production (points per 60 minutes) against time on ice per game in 5-on-5 play. It should be noted, first-off, that Tennyson, Hunwick, and Guhle have limited sample sizes so their numbers are not an accurate representation of their value. For argument’s sake, they will be ignored going forward. As for the other eight defensemen, the most productive in their time on ice are Pilut, Beaulieu, and McCabe. While it may be surprising not to see Ristolainen or Dahlin in front, they play heavy minutes in key situations which compromises their position on this chart. Same goes for Bogosian.

Effectiveness

Pure production is one thing, but how effective is a player relative to his peers? Perhaps the above chart is the best representation of such. It shows a player’s corsi percentage relative to when he is on the ice as opposed to off of it, weighted against a player’s goals-for percentage relative in the same way. This way, we can truly isolate an individual’s impact on the play of the team, whether positive or negative.

Interestingly, Pilut is the clear frontrunner - not only on defense but also on the entire team(!!). Also falling in the “effective” category are Nelson, Beaulieu, and Dahlin. Bogosian has had a positive impact on corsi more than he has on goals-for, while McCabe, Ristolainen, and Scandella all have registered as less effective than the rest in both areas.

Zone Starts

One thing to remember when judging a player’s corsi impact is the situations that player is put in. This chart measures ZSR (zone start rate) versus corsi-for percentage. As the chart shows, Nelson and Beaulieu start play in the offensive zone more times than not, as opposed to the other six defensemen who start more in the defensive zone.

Weighing in a player’s corsi-for percentage allows us to see how zone start rates may affect a defenseman’s play, or how certain defensemen may overcome their situations. Again, Pilut is the leader in flipping the ice and carrying play in the offensive zone - along with Dahlin - despite starting mostly in the d-zone. Nelson’s positive corsi rate is somewhat due to sheltered starts in the o-zone.

Bogosian, McCabe, Ristolainen, and Scandella are weighed down a bit by starting frequently in the d-zone, and Beaulieu brings up the rear by actually having the ice flipped on by having a negative corsi-rate despite starting more in the o-zone.

Giveaways and Takeaways

Giveaways and takeaways have been staple categories for years in judging defensemen. While some giveaways are due to a player trying to do more with the puck, weighing it against corsi can help in determining a player’s positive or negative impact. In this chart, Dahlin is the clear turnover machine, which matches the eye-test as he’s had some poor ones this year.

However, he also has the puck on his stick a lot and tries things some of the other defensemen cannot even fathom. Most of the defensemen, actually, fall into the “detrimental” quadrant of the chart due to the position’s nature. The leader of the group, interestingly enough, is McCabe. He borders the “cautious” category, due to his low number of giveaways.

Blocked Shots

Before we make our final decision on the top six, what else can we possibly weigh-in that impacts a defenseman’s play? How about blocked shots, which some still like to consider valuable to defensive play. The above chart shows a players shot-rate against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play versus the individual’s blocks per 60.

The leader here is clearly McCabe, along with Nelson, Beaulieu, Pilut, and Dahlin being the most efficient shot-blockers. Ristolainen and Bogosian aren’t too far behind. Somewhat surprisingly, Scandella brings up the rear in this category, with inflated shot-blocking numbers only due to facing a high volume against.

The Top Six

So, after balancing all of these categories, who are the top six? Here’s the list below, with their supporting reasons:

Rasmus Dahlin

- Effective in 5-on-5 play

- Positively flips the ice

- Efficient shot-blocker

- Plays top four minutes

Lawrence Pilut

- Productive in time on ice

- Effective in 5-on-5 play

- Positively flips the ice

- Efficient shot-blocker

Jake McCabe

- Moderately productive in time on ice

- Smart with the puck

- Very efficient shot-blocker

- Plays top four minutes

Rasmus Ristolainen

- Solid all-around

- Plays in key defensive situations

- Plays top two minutes

Zach Bogosian

- Solid all-around

- Plays in key defensive situations

- Plays top four minutes

Nathan Beaulieu

- Moderately productive in time on ice

- Effective in 5-on-5 play

- Efficient shot blocker

- Has ice flipped on a bit

Missed the cut:

Casey Nelson

- Effective in 5-on-5 play

- Efficient shot blocker

- Sheltered o-zone starts

Marco Scandella

- Ineffective in 5-on-5 play

- Inefficient shot-blocker

- Plays in key defensive situations