We’re 10 games into the Buffalo Sabres season and they’ve earned 17 of a possible 20 points. They sit atop the NHL standings entering play tonight. Last season taught us that nothing is certain, but as we’ve discussed recently, this season looks different than the streak from last year.
Ralph Krueger got his club to buy into his message right off the bat. We heard players talk about how impressed they were with him over the summer and that continued through training camp.
When Krueger was hired, we wondered how much he would try to incorporate strategies from his soccer background with Southampton of the Premier League. So far, we can pick out a few things that he’s brought to the Sabres.
One thing is the elimination of morning skates on home game days. Lance Lysowski of the Buffalo News, wrote an excellent article about it that gets into the thought process behind it. The idea comes from his experience with players only doing light off the field workouts before matches to conserve their energy.
Another area of the game that Krueger has stressed is the possession of the puck. This is also a focus in the world of soccer. The Sabres head coach gave some insight into his philosophy while discussing his defensemen after last night’s victory over the San Jose Sharks.
“You try to maintain possession under all that pressure and I think more often than not they’ve found solutions that got us going in the other direction with control instead of just handing possession back to a team as potent as San Jose,” said Krueger.
We’ve seen the improvement in the Sabres transition game early on this season. Jason Botterill added some better puck movers in Henri Jokiharju and Colin Miller that has helped the team exit the zone with possession more consistently. It’s not just the new players that are responsible for better results in this area.
Marco Scandella has had a great turnaround through 10 games and is making better decisions with the puck. He’s utilizing his defensive partner that excels in breaking the puck out. Scandella is also the top defender on the team in shot share with a 55.74% score-adjusted Corsi, according to Natural Stat Trick.
The team overall has a 50% score and venue adjusted Corsi, which ranks them 17th in the league. The shot share numbers are not impressive, but they haven’t been dominated in any game in terms of possession outside of the contest against the Los Angeles Kings.
Although the Corsi numbers are not anything to write home about, the Sabres have had a significant improvement in shot quality over last season. The approach last season under Phil Housley was a “shot mentality” but that often resulted in their shot quality taking a hit.
Krueger made it clear last night that this was not his approach with the team this season. When he was asked during his postgame press conference if he asked his team to shot more, his response was interesting.
He replied: “no, we don’t generally push that so hard. It’s more getting bodies to the net, than pucks, not the other way around.” The shot chart (below) at 5 on 5 from last night’s game was a perfect example of this approach to look for better shooting opportunities.
Entering play tonight, the Sabres rank ninth in the league in expected goals for per 60 minutes (2.21), according to Natural Stat Trick. That’s an improvement over their xGF/60 rating of 2.11 from last year, which was the fifth-lowest in the league.
As most of you may know, there was an NHL glitch in shot locations over the first few games of the season. The issue has been corrected, but they have not gone back to fix the old games. Therefore their 2.21 rating could be higher with the error impacting the first handful of games of the season.
Krueger appears to have his finger right on the pulse of his team. He understands the talent on his roster and has them playing a style that sets them up to win games. He’s succeeding at getting the players to buy-in.
The new coach has his team playing with confidence and not showing any signs of the fragility that was prevalent throughout last season. They’ve had some adversity early in the season and have bounced back at each opportunity.
We’ll see if Krueger can continue to have his team play at this level throughout the entire season. If he does, he may be nominated for some hardware at the end of the season.