The Buffalo Sabres are back to playing some solid hockey over the past few weeks and have started to stack wins together. In the process, a new defense pairing has emerged to lead the way for the club to rebound after a rough November.
That pairing is the duo of Ramsus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour. Looking at this pair on the surface it screams of danger in the defensive zone. However, hockey is a weird game sometimes and this pairing has found success.
There are a handful of reasons that this pairing shouldn’t work. First and foremost, Montour has to play on the left side, which is something he hasn’t done in his NHL career. Playing on either wing isn’t a big deal for a forward, but playing your off-hand can be difficult for a defenseman. It can impact the way you receive the puck from your partner, defend a forechecker, pivoting on the rush, and stick placement.
In Montour’s case, he’s a special skater that can overcome some of the skating impacts on flipping to the opposite side. He also handles the puck well and makes quick decisions to stay out of trouble.
The other obvious part is that neither player is known for their play in the defensive zone. Both can have lapses in judgment and get caught out of position. Montour has always been a “high-event” player throughout his career. Meaning he can generate quality for his team offensively, but also gives up a lot of quality defensively.
We’ve documented the defensive struggles of Ristolainen on numerous occasions. He has the knack to take himself out of position and make bad plays with the puck.
How Does it Work?
Despite all of the perceived challenges that the duo appears to face, it works. So, now the next step is to figure out why it works.
Off the top, the first thing that jumps out to me is pairing Ristolainen with a player that excels at exiting the defensive zone has a history of success. His struggles to exit the zone consistently with possession are well known. One of the reasons that he had success with Lawrence Pilut last season was this very reason. It allows someone else to handle the exits and get the puck going the other way.
Over the last two seasons, Ristolainen has struggled to play with Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella because they are just as bad in exiting the zone. Now, Montour does the majority of the heavy lifting carrying the puck out of the zone or distributing to the forwards up the ice without turning the puck back over.
Montour also likes to fly up the ice and get involved in the rush to help create offense for his team. Ristolainen contributes to the offense in a different way. He likes to get the puck at the point and drive it down the wall with possession. Again, two varying styles with similar types of players mesh together.
In the defensive end, Montour has the ability to make up for coverage mistakes with his speed to close on an opponent or cover a gap that opened. Ristolainen, on the other hand, can do a lot of the work on the walls where he excels. He can retrieve the puck and then distribute it to his partner to exit the zone.
It’s also interesting to note that Ralph Krueger is sheltering this pairing with offensive zone starts. Natural Stat Trick has them at an 87.05% offensive zone start rate. He’s putting this pairing in a position that helps reduce how often they’re forced to defend.
The underlying numbers behind this pairing are really impressive. They’ve played 66 minutes together, which is a small sample size to this point, but the stats show signs of a solid pairing.
According to Natural Stat Trick, of pairs to play at least 60 minutes together on the Sabres, they lead the team in the following score and venue adjusted metrics at 5 on 5:
- Shot share (CF%) - 55.92%
- Shot quality (xGF%) - 61.68%
- Goal share (GF%) - 74.11% (second-best)
- High-danger chances (HDCF%) - 66.91%
Moving beyond just the Sabres, they’re near the top of the league in these categories among all pairs to play at least 60 minutes together at 5 on 5. As a pair, they rank 13th in the league in goal share and 12th in the league in shot quality share.
The Sabres have found themselves a pairing that works well together. They’ve been one of the reasons that the Sabres have started to find success again over the last few weeks. It’ll be interesting to see what Krueger does with his pairs once Rasmus Dahlin returns from his concussion. They’ll have eight healthy defensemen barring an injury and Dahlin had some success with Montour prior to his injury.
We’ll see if Botterill finally pulls a trigger on a trade to clear some of the log jam on defense and give us some clarity on how the defense will look moving forward.