It’s generally accepted that despite the ten game win streak, the Buffalo Sabres were mostly bad during the 2018/2019 season. This is a pretty easy statement to make and correctly back up by simply looking at the standings, but I’ve been curious to figure out what exactly it is they are bad at and how they can fix it going forward in order to improve their place in the standings.
Rid The Team Of Especially Poor Performers
Using Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement skater table, during the 18/19 season there were 769 skaters that played at least 200 minutes for their team.
(The actual number of players is slightly lower because Evolving Hockey creates a row for each team a player plays on. For example Brandon Montour has a row for his time in Anaheim, and a row for his time in Buffalo).
Of those 769 skaters, 239 were below replacement based on their Goals Above Replacement (GAR) result. The Sabres had seven players on that list of 239 which in and of itself isn’t the worst. Like most stats they sit roughly middle of the pack with 7 negative GAR players, however they did have three players in the top 25 worst GAR in the league (Thompson -9.6, Sobotka -6.8, Scandella -5.5). No team had more players in the top 25 and only Chicago and Detroit had as many.
One very easy move that would almost instantly improve the team would be to not have any of those three players play for them in the 2019/2020 season.
After they decide to remove the especially bad players from their lineup, the next step is to assess some systemic issues.
Under Phil Housley the Sabres appeared to be playing a sort of Man-to-Man/Zone defense hybrid wherein they would initially set up in a zone like position with the wingers up high between the circles and blue line and the defense closer to the crease area depending on where the puck is, but rather than sticking to a designated zone like you’re typically taught to do, the Sabres often moved into a man-to-man set up once they picked up their assignments.
Man-to-man doesn’t have to be an inherently bad defensive structure but in order to pull it off you need a lot to go right for you. You typically need a line up full of quick skaters to keep up the pace, and excellent communication to quickly and properly pull off coverage switches since there isn’t an understood area where you know another guy is going to step in and take over coverage when the puck moves there.
Here is just one example of how quickly this set up can break down:
To me the key issue here is Ristolainen getting pulled all the way up above the circles and almost to the blue line while the puck swings below the dots. The way Carolina pulls off the pass not only draws the defenseman high and out of the play, it also creates separation between Eichel and Aho, allowing an extremely good player open space near the net to create a play which he, of course, takes full advantage of.
Skinner could have done a much better job sticking with Faulk as he stepped in to the circle but I’d argue the strict man-to-man system allowed the opportunity for Faulk to happen in the first place.
The solution I’d attempt first is to revert to a more traditional zone set up where the wingers are responsible for the area from the dots out while the defense alternate covering the net front depending on the where the puck is while the center provides puck support wherever it goes, filling lanes and jumping in on the defensive attack at the right moments. If you’d like to dig deeper, Hockey Share provides an in depth explanation of this set up.
Now, traditional does not have to mean conservative. I much prefer players attacking the puck carrier all over the ice. In my preferred set up if the puck is in the corner I want my RD pressuring the puck carrier the whole time while my center is set up behind him ready to pounce on a loose puck or provide a passing option if the RD creates a turnover.
This same thing should be happening wherever the puck goes. The center needs to be stalking the puck while the designated winger or defensemen attack the puck carrier head on. In theory the man-to-man should have a similar objective but the zone system creates clear lines of demarcation so the wingers and defensemen know when they should be attacking and when they should back off because they know a teammate is stepping in to take over puck carrier coverage.
Shoot The Puck Where It Counts
Arguably the Sabres biggest issue is their inability to create high danger scoring opportunities. In 18/19 they finished 26th in the league it Expected Goals For (xGF) at 5v5 with 143.26, a direct result of their 20th ranked High Danger Corsi For total of 686. They simply do not create or take enough shot attempts in high danger areas around the slot and crease.
Hockey Viz provides a helpful visual to show just how bad they are at generating offense in close to the net. Red indicates high volume shot areas and blue indicates low volume shot areas.
Even though the Sabres finished 13th in Corsi For, their shot attempts were mostly from low danger areas and failed to create any noise in the areas that actually matter. They had this unfortunate tendency to take an inordinate amount of shots from the point near the boards. It is extremely unlikely that a shot from here will even make it to the net front for a rebound or secondary shot attempt, let alone actually end up in the net, so the first step I would take as coach is to almost entirely eliminate this shot from being taken, no matter how tempted the defensemen get.
Their objective offensively should be to first get the puck inside the top of the circles and the dots and then shoot with reckless abandon while the non shooting forwards crash hard looking for rebounds and loose pucks.
I went back and watched some Carolina Hurricanes games because they led the league by a wide margin in High Danger Corsi For this past season and figured they could be a good team to learn from.
While they do take a fair number of shots from the point, they also make an effort to move the puck further down the boards to increase their odds of getting the puck through to the net and then have their forwards attack the crease and pick up loose pucks in tight. I also noticed they had a tendency to shoot for the goaltenders chest in order to get a whistle and set up an offensive zone draw where they’d often send out the Aho line to start their shift. Aho finished the season with 58.37% of his 5v5 face-offs occurring in the offensive zone.
One final observation on creating high danger shot attempts comes from Kevin, better know as @ntrider825 on twitter. In talking with him about the Sabres inability to create high danger chances, he pointed to their issues with creating clean zone exits as a unit and tendency to rely top players like Eichel and Dahlin to do all of the work exiting the defensive zone and entering the offensive zone, therefore forcing them to use all of their energy just to get the puck into the offensive zone, leaving them little to work with and limiting their creativity offensively.
By adding players that are capable of contributing to exiting and entering the zone and removing players that can’t, the Sabres should be able to free players like Jack Eichel from carrying the burden himself and allow him to instead focus his energy on creating opportunities in high danger areas.
The Sabres have more than three issues to address, but these relatively simple changes in personnel and mindset should create more opportunities for and fewer against, hopefully leading to a significant improvement in the standings.
I’d like to take a second to thank Chris Ostrander, Chad DeDominicis, and the previously mentioned Kevin for helping me formulate some of these ideas and pointing me in the direction of specific examples to review. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to flesh this out without their help.