Making additions to the roster in the offseason to improve the team is always in the focus. The Buffalo Sabres need to add talent to their roster, but perhaps it’s equally as important that they find a way to rid themselves of bad impact players.
If a few players on the team are replaced by new blood that plays at replacement level, the Sabres could see a bump in their win total by making that change alone. A handful of players were some of the most negatively impactful players at their position.
Starting on the blue line, we’ve had plenty of conversations about the poor 5 on 5 numbers of Rasmus Ristolainen. Believe it or not, it was Marco Scandella, that actually hurt the Sabres the most. Looking at Evolving Hockey’s regularized adjusted plus-minus model, Scandella, was near the bottom of the league in nearly every category at 5 on 5.
He had the sixth worst (-0.212) expected goals for per 60 minutes among all defensemen in the NHL. The 29-year-old was also ranked as the 24th worst defensemen in xGA per 60 (0.14). Overall his xGPM per 60 was the third worst impact (-0.352) among all defensemen in the NHL.
Basically, this adds up to Scandella negating the club offensively when he was on the ice and being a liability defensively. Remember, this is a player that was on the ice for top pair minutes for many games throughout this past season.
The negative impact showed up in Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement metrics as well. He was the 13th worst GAR at -5.5 this past season. Scandella has one year remaining on his contract at a $4 million cap hit. There is probably a team out there that would be willing to take on one year of a veteran left shot defender. The Sabres may need to eat a portion of the contract to make a deal, but Jason Botterill needs to find that trade in the summer.
If you were curious, Ristolainen’s numbers were not as bad as Scandella’s, but his overall xGPM at 5 on 5 was the 36th worst (-0.167) in the league among all defensemen.
Moving to the forwards, there are at least three players that had some of the worst impact numbers in the league. All three of them happen to be in the bottom six of the roster that continues to need an upgrade.
Up first is everyone’s favorite, Vladimir Sobotka. He impacted his team’s offense the worst (-0.298) in the entire league among all forwards at 5 on 5 in xGF/60. His defensive impacts were a little better, but still not good. Overall his xGPM impact (-0.388) was the third worst among all forwards. His GAR this season was tied for the seventh worst at forward with a -6.8 rating.
As I said above, it wasn’t just Sobotka that stifled the offense when they were on the ice. Kyle Okposo had the 12th worst xGF per 60 among forwards and Tage Thompson was the 48th worst.
The difference between those aforementioned players it that Okposo was still a positive impact player defensively. Thompson was not and in fact had the second worst GAR among all forwards with a -9.6 rating.
It’s unlikely Thompson or Okposo are going anywhere in the summer. Thompson was just acquired as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade and Okposo has a contract that is pretty much immovable at this point. You have to hope Thompson starts to turn his game around at the NHL level in a new role next season and that the new coach can find a good role for Okposo.
Sobotka, on the other hand, falls in the same category as Scandella. Botterill needs to find a way to move on from the player. Unlike Scandella, I don’t believe there would be a lot of interest in the 31-year-old forward. The Sabres could explore a buyout, but that doesn’t seem to be something the general manager likes to do. Therefore, that leaves them with the option of waiving him next season and seeing what happens. They could assign him to a team in Europe or another AHL team, similar to what they did with Matt Moulson.
Last but not least, the numbers behind the goaltending duo of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark were not great this season. Both of them were in the bottom 10 in goals saved above expected among all goalies with at least 1,200 minutes played.
Ullmark had the seventh worst xGSA of -15.93, while Hutton, had the 10th worst with a xGSA of -12.12. The two of them started the season strong but really fell off once the calendar flipped to December. While the team was struggling they could have used one of these two stepping up to stop the bleeding. Instead, they both sunk like a rock for the final four months of the season, just like the team itself.
The Sabres were the only team in the NHL to have two goaltenders in the bottom 10 of xGSA with at least 1,200 minutes played. It’s not a stretch to say they had one of the worst goaltending tandems in the league last season with their performances.
Of course, the defense in front of them didn’t help but their poor performance only exasperated the situation. There were break downs in coverage, however, there were too many times that the soft goal was going in at the worst moments. The defense needs improvement, but an improvement in play between the pipes will help the overall situation defensively.
Both Hutton and Ullmark are going to be back next season. The Sabres don’t need them to be one of the top five goaltending tandems in the league, but even if they play at the league average it’ll be a considerable upgrade. Playing at an average or slightly above average level in goal will likely add a few more wins to the Sabres record next season.
The long and short of all of this is to point out while the Sabres need to bring in talent to their roster; it’s vital for them to remove some players from it. As well as, get at the very least replacement level play from the players mentioned here that will be returning next season.
As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout, replacing these players that had these types of negative impacts when they’re on the ice with players that are just average is going to be worth a few more wins next season. It won’t be enough to get them into a playoff spot, but it’ll be a start if these changes/improved performances pick them up to four to five wins out of the gate.