Through the first quarter of the season, the Buffalo Sabres penalty kill has been a major disappointment. Over the last month of the season, both sides of their special teams have let them down and are a key reason why the team finds themselves sinking in the standings.
The team has their struggles to score at 5 on 5 and can’t afford to flounder on special teams as well if they have any hope of digging themselves out of this slump.
Penalty Kill Strategy
The Sabres deploy a 1-1-2 system for their penalty kill. They have one forward out high at the blue line, one forward in the middle of the ice, and then the two defenders around the net.
In this system, the Sabres use the forward at the top to follow the puck around the ice while the other three skaters remain mostly stationary defending the slot. The odd part of this approach is that the Sabres are inviting chaos into their structure. They’re having one player fly all over the zone and at times result in players ending up out of position. Here’s an example of that against the Carolina Hurricanes. Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons both start to attack the Hurricanes defender at the point, leaving the forward by the faceoff dot on the right wide open.
What happens next is the puck goes to that open forward that then makes a pass to the middle of the ice to Sebastian Aho for a goal.
One more example of consistently getting out of position comes against the Minnesota Wild. Somehow three players get caught on one side of the ice and in the same area. Ryan Suter’s point shot is deflected in by Zach Parise, as he stands next to the goaltender without anyone near him.
There appears to be a lot of breakdowns and flaws in this particular structure. Yet they don’t adjust and continue to give up goals in penalty kill situations.
High Volume and High Quality
The Sabres don’t take a lot of penalties. According to Evolving Hockey, they take 3.4 penalties per 60 minutes (14th in the league), but entering play today, the Sabres were ranked 26th in the league on the penalty kill. They also rank near the bottom of the league in unblocked shot attempts against (28th), shot quality against (30th), and goals allowed (25th) while shorthanded.
They don’t play a system the effectively reduces shot quality as they give up 8.05 xGA/60 while shorthanded or reduce shot attempts with 86.05 unblocked shots against per 60 minutes.
Essentially to play this style that gives up that much, they need their goaltender to bail them out consistently to be an effective unit. The chart below using data from Evolving Hockey shows how poorly they rank in the categories above in regards to the rest of the league. The shades on the blue bars indicate which teams are getting the saves to go along with those metrics.
The Sabres goaltending save percentage is below average at this point in the season, ranked 22nd overall. However, through the first 11 games of the season, they were getting the goaltending to help the penalty kill. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark combined for a .911 save percentage through the first half of the season to this point. At that time, the Sabres were still giving up high quality shot but the goaltending was saving them.
Unfortunately, over the last 11 games, they’re giving up even higher quality chances against but the goaltending is not bailing them out this time. Hutton and Ullmark have combined for a .844 save percentage on the penalty kill over that stretch. The increased quality and inability of the goalies to outperform the deficiencies in their system have resulted in the club having gone 67.7% on the kill over the last 11 games. By the way, they’ve only won two of their last 11 games.
After going through the team data, I wondered if any of the players that they utilize have positive on-ice numbers in reference to the rest of the league. Perhaps one unit was a bigger liability than the others and that could be a reason for some of the struggles.
Well, turns out that isn’t the case as you can see in the chart below. Which, could be an indicator that this is an overall structure issue if all the players that are utilized are allowing similar opportunities while they’re on the ice.
The highlighted dots are all the Sabres players that have played over 13 minutes on the penalty kill this season. The size of the dot indicates how much ice time they have while the team is shorthanded. All of the players allow a high volume of shots against and high quality when they’re on the ice compared to the rest of the league.
If you’re curious, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Zemgus Girgensons, and Johan Larsson are the four players that grade out the best in xGA/60 and FA/60. At the beginning of the season, the Sabres were utilizing some offensive players like Jack Eichel and Marcus Johansson. Over the last few weeks that appears to have gone away. While they may not be ideal penalty killers, they have the potential to flip some defense to offense and put some pressure on their opponents.
My review of the data and the video of the goals that are scored against on the penalty kill is that the Sabres need to make a change in their approach. The league appears to have figured them out and they’re giving up, even more, every game we go along. The shortcomings on this roster are such that they are unable to overcome a poor special teams unit. Unless something changes, this problem is going to continue to cost them games.