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Sabres youth progression

With 50 games in the books this season, it’s time to re-examine the developmental track for the youngsters in Buffalo

NHL: JAN 16 Sabres at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The overall developmental track of the young contributors in Buffalo has been a major topic of conversation this season. From general growth, to deployment strategies, every move that the organization has made this season has been analyzed to some degree.

With 32 games remaining in 2018-19, the focus will be placed primarily on the Eastern Conference playoff race. In what was always supposed to be a developmental year for the Sabres young roster, we dive into the numbers to gauge how each individual greenhorn has progressed, and determine how their roles have expanded (or haven’t) through 50 games.

Casey Mittelstadt

Starting with the forwards, the first skater we’ll examine is Casey Mittelstadt, a player whose situation has been somewhat murky since the beginning. From game one of the 2018-19 campaign, it was pretty clear that Mittelstadt had some growing to do before attaining success as the team’s second line center. Part of that struggle has been exacerbated by the Sabres’ lack of depth on the wing. Regardless, nobody was expecting a completely finished product in his first full year of NHL action (well, nobody with reasonable expectations anyway).

Thankfully (and expectedly), improvements are taking place. His expected goals average is trending up along with vast improvements across the board in relation to his shooting metrics. He’s helping to create more high-danger opportunities for himself and his linemates, and he’s posting positive Corsi percentages alongside linemates with whom he had previously struggled (namely, Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues and Tage Thompson).

Over his last three games with some combination of Sheary, Rodrigues and Thompson, his line has posted excellent relative Corsi percentages. Tuesday’s victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets was probably his best game of the season despite only registering one assist on the evening.

Slowly, but surely, these trends will translate to improved scoring production as well. All signs indicate that Mittelstadt will experience a nice offensive uptick to close out the year. If that’s the case, that much-needed influx of consistent production outside of the top line could go a long way in helping the Sabres squeak into the playoffs.

Now comes the question of deployment. Will his recent play be enough to convince Phil Housley that he is ready for a more substantial workload? Through the first two periods of the Sabres game against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night, despite his line posting a Corsi of over 90-percent, Mittelstadt actually skated for fewer minutes than Remi Elie. Thankfully, Housley adjusted in the third period with a heavy-dose of the Sheary-Mittelstadt-Rodrigues line. In fact, that game marked only the second time in the last 10 contests where Mittelstadt has skated for more than 14 minutes on a given night.

As the futility of Vladimir Sobotka has become more and more evident, there is simply no reason that his line should have more minutes in any game for the remainder of the season. Housley has been criticized relentlessly for his shortcomings when it comes to roster optimization and player deployment. Many of his supporters have cited a patient approach as part of the reason for his reluctance to increase the workload of his young players. That argument stops holding water when you consider the fact that Mittelstadt has skated for fewer minutes than his season average of 13:13 in 15 of the Sabres’ 23 games since the beginning of December.

Tage Thompson

Next up is perhaps the most polarizing player on the list (when it comes to fan perception) in the 21-year-old Thompson. Most would agree that he got off to a dreadful start after impressing during rookie camp and preseason action, but he too has shown some improvement as of late.

Like Mittelstadt, he has done a much better job of producing shots from the slot over the last 15 games, as evidenced by the chart below. He is also experiencing a gradual, yet consistent uptick in expected goals, which again, will serve as extremely useful down the stretch.

As is he case with pretty much every youngster on this list, Thompson’s ice-time has been pretty modest this season. Unlike Mittelstadt, his minutes have increased substantially as of late. Though his season average of 12:41 is lower, over the last 11 games, hes skated for 15 minutes or more on five different occasions, which is odd given how inconsistent he continues to be from a production standpoint.

Of the 11 points he’s produced in 43 games this season, five of them came during a six-game stretch from November 19-29. He’s only produced five points in the 24 games since. In terms of relative Corsi, his mark of -4.65 is the third-lowest among Sabres forwards, behind only Sobotka and Remi Elie.

It’s tough to label a guy who has only played 84 NHL games as “streaky” but to this point, that’s what he’s been. The increased ice-time probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Sabres have a very limited talent pool on the wing, forcing Thompson up and down the lineup on different occasions. Regardless, the biggest thing that he needs to work on is consistency.

Sure, he can dangle with the best of them, and his shot has the potential to be an elite weapon for him, but if he cannot clean up his play in the neutral-zone, his Corsi numbers will continue to be sub-par. It will be interesting to see how he fares next season when the Sabres inevitably address their forward depth concerns and he doesn’t have to spend a majority of his time alongside an offensive black-hole like Sobotka. For now, we’ll just have to take the good with the bad in the hope that he can continue the modest, yet positive trajectory that he is currently on.

Rasmus Dahlin

No matter how fantastic Rasmus Dahlin’s performances have been this season, there always seems to be a small, vocal contingent of the Sabres fan base who want to crucify him for every rookie mistake. It was always going to be tough to live up to the immense hype that he had coming into his inaugural season, but even though he isn’t producing gaudy offensive numbers (yet), he’s played as advertised so far.

Before we dive into the advanced stats, let’s take a look at how he’s stacked up against the offensive production that other elite NHL defenders experienced as rookies. As an 18-year-old, his 46-point pace would rank him in the top-25 all-time for a rookie defenseman. As has been mentioned countless times on the Sabres broadcast as of late, that pace also puts him in line to post the second-most points by an 18-year-old defenseman in league history.

That’s right folks, as a teenager, he’s out-pacing the rookie seasons of current NHL elites like Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban. As if this weren’t impressive enough, his aptitude in the defensive zone, and in transition is perhaps even more awe-inspiring considering the fact that this is his first season on North American ice.

His relative-Corsi of 3.70 is the highest mark by a Buffalo defender this season and he’s had a positive effect on the Corsi percentage of every single partner that he’s been paired with. A big part of Zach Bogosian’s mini-resurgence this season has to do with the fact that he’s spent most of his time alongside Dahlin. With him as a partner, Bogosian’s Corsi is 53.99. Without him it drops significantly, down to 49.86.

Housley certainly seems to be recognizing that he has the ability to lean on Dahlin more and more. Over the past seven games, he’s surpassed his season ice-time average of 20:41 in six of them. That ability to eat up extra minutes has also helped reduce Rasmus Ristolainen’s previously ridiculous workload. The trickle-down effect that has taken place as a result of his arrival is one of the biggest factors in the team’s improvement on the back end this year.

Yes, there have been some gaffes in his own zone and he’s far from a finished product, but it’s hard to be anything but enthralled with how quickly he has positively impacted the team in his first season. Given what we’ve seen from him so far, it’s not crazy to say that he has surpassed Jack Eichel as the most exciting, promising player in the organization.

Lawrence Pilut

Perhaps no player on the roster has inspired so much debate and whose situation has drawn so much ire from the fan base (through no fault of his own).

From his advanced metrics to the good old eyeball test, it’s obvious to pretty much everyone that Pilut is one of the top-four defensemen on the roster. Everyone except Housley, of course. Sure, the head coach’s biggest defenders will site an intangible like the organization’s perceived development method as the reason why Pilut has been inexplicably healthy-scratched ahead of under-performing veterans like Marco Scandella this season, but at some point, the data behind his play needs to trump said plan.

Aside from the fact that his relative Corsi of 3.16 is good for third-best among Sabres defenders this season, perhaps his biggest strength comes in the form of the effect he’s had on his defensive partners, Ristolainen in particular. For years the organization has saddled Ristolainen with inferior partners who have done their best to drag down his Corsi ratings and who have failed to compliment his strengths.

It seems that they have finally found a player in Pilut who is best suited to maximize Ristolainen’s skill set, so the decision to scratch him seemingly every time he makes a mistake is all the more head-scratching. Alongside the 23-year-old Swede, Ristolainen’s Corsi has improved to 53.99 this season. Away from him, it plummets back toward the averages we saw prior to 2018-19 at 48.92. Failing to optimize a player in Ristolainen who is still very much the team’s defensive workhorse is simply indefensible.

Pilut’s expected goal differential is also the highest on the team. Why Housley continues to force a player like Scandella (who every available metric indicates that he isn’t one of the top-six defensemen on the team anymore) over Pilut is beyond maddening. Yes, some will argue that the Sabres might be “showcasing” Scandella for a trade, but at what point does that sacrifice start costing the team more in value than what he would garner in return? How many general managers are going to be fooled into thinking that he can be a piece of their top-four?

Similar to Dahlin, this is Pilut’s first season in North America and the transition has been seamless. From the minute he arrived in Buffalo after an incredible start with the Rochester Amerks, he has conducted himself on the ice with the poise and intelligence of a grizzled veteran. An argument can be made that he is currently the second-best puck-moving defenseman on the roster. Age and experience-level aside, there is simply no reason that he should ever see the inside of the press box again.

The organization struck absolute gold with this acquisition, especially when you consider that they forfeited zero assets in order to acquire him. As long as they keep him on the ice, he’ll continue to develop into a future core-piece of the Sabres’ defense.