The Buffalo Sabres are off to a surprisingly hot start this season and they’ve had a handful of players get off to strong starts as well. One such player is veteran defenseman Marco Scandella. The 29-year-old defenseman has been a completely different player than what we saw for most of last season.
He’s reduced the mental mistakes that got him into trouble in the past and has been better positionally in the defensive zone, as well as the neutral zone. Scandella has flourished so far in Ralph Krueger’s system that has a basic structure and allows the players to react off their instincts.
New season, new me
Scandella has been on a downward trend over the last four years. He had a solid year with the Minnesota Wild back in 2015-16, but his play had begun to fall off consistently every season thereafter. Looking at Evolving Wild’s goals GAR/60 (goals above replacement) numbers over the last four years you can see the downward trend in impact. He went from a 0.383 GAR/60 in 2015-16 to -0.307 last season.
It looked like the obvious move for the Sabres was to try to get out from under a declining player that was one of the worst statistically in the league last season in terms of on-ice impact. Micah McCurdy’s model below shows just how dire it was when Scandella was on the ice last season.
To the displeasure of many, they decided to bring him back this season and so far the Sabres have been rewarded for their loyalty to the player. Scandella has been a big surprise for the club to start this season and has been a contributor to the new-look blue line this season. That blue line has helped propel the Sabres to their 5-0-1 start.
Beyond the eye-test, the numbers also show an improvement in play. Let’s take a look at the 5 on 5 score and venue adjusted rates per 60 from Natural Stat Trick:
- 2018-19 CF% - 45.80% (lowest on the team) | 2019-20 CF% - 57.82%
- 2018-19 GF% - 40.25% (lowest on the team) | 2019-20 GF% - 74.45%
- 2018-19 xGF% - 41.10% (lowest on the team) | 2019-20 xGF% - 52.24%
A quick aside, we have to be careful with the expected goals data comparing last year against this year at this point. The Evolving Hockey twins discovered an error in the NHL’s play by play data that is plotting shot locations differently than in years past. Having said that, there’s still no denying that there’s been an improvement in xGF% for Scandella so far this season compared to last year.
It’s only six games against a full season, so we can’t get too carried away with the small sample size, but so far so good.
The biggest change that could be contributing to the improved play is that Scandella has a new partner this season. He’s been paired with newly acquired Henri Jokiharju in each game this season. That pair has probably been the team’s most consistent pair so far this season. The 20-year-old has been excellent for the Sabres and doesn’t look out of place at all in the NHL.
Last season, Scandella’s most common defense partners were Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian, according to Natural Stat Trick. Those two defensemen are not known for their ability to exit the zone with ease. It didn’t mesh well with Scandella, that also struggles in that department.
This season, he doesn’t have to worry about that being an issue. Jokiharju has shown to be one of the better puck-moving defenders on the team and has taken some pressure off of the veteran. To Scandella’s credit, he’s recognized the ability of his partner and has differed to him a lot in situations to exit the defensive zone.
Let me show you an example of what I’m talking about from the game against the Dallas Stars. This shot below you see Scandella with the puck and a few forecheckers coming in on him. Last year, he likely fires this puck off the glass or worse tries to force it to Mittelstadt, resulting in a turnover.
The next shot below we see that Scandella made the right play here and reversed the puck to his partner, Jokiharju. He “defers” to his partner and moves the puck to the open side of the side for a cleaner zone exit. As you can see below, the Stars had three forecheckers on one side of the ice collapsing on Mittelstadt that we saw in the first clip as the outlet on that side of the ice.
When Scandella has had to move to make plays with the puck on breakouts he’s done a good job reducing turnovers and breakdowns. He’s playing confident and has even created scoring opportunities for his teammates with his passing. He made a nice stretch pass to begin the play that resulted in Sam Reinhart’s goal against the Stars.
Scandella has played great hockey to start this season. It’s only a small sample size, so we can’t be sure it’ll remain that way. However, if the Sabres can get an improved Scandella at 5 on 5 to be a veteran presence for Jokiharju, it’ll be good news for the future success of the team.
The big defender is one early feather in the cap of Krueger for helping to turn around a player that struggled last season. We’ll see if he can continue to push this team past expectations as the season goes on.