There’s still time for the Buffalo Sabres to make some changes to their team prior to entering training camp in the middle of September. However, as we continue to scratch days off of the calendar, the roster as currently constructed becomes the group they’re likely to head to camp with.
It’s odd to think about that at this point, Jason Pominville is the only player from last season that will not return. Jason Botterill added two new players to his blue line this season in Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Yet, every other defenseman from last year’s team is slated to return. We’ve discussed ad nauseam the idea of a Rasmus Ristolainen trade, but nothing appears to be imminent at this point (hoping for a jinx here).
As of now, the Sabres have 11 NHL defensemen on the club if you count Will Borgen. While Phil Housley’s defensive strategy and usage were questionable, to say the least, the idea of having very little turnover on that blue line next season is a bold strategy.
Next season, they’re on track to return two of the bottom 30 worst defensemen in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM expected goals plus-minus per 60 model at even strength. Those two defenders were Ristolainen (29) and Scandella (3). The scary part is those two played together a lot last season and with them, both returning, the possibility of that happening again exists.
Matt Hunwick proved to be nothing more than a seventh defenseman last season. Jake McCabe can be a solid player at times and has a tendency struggle when given a bigger role. The question is what player will you get the majority of the season?
The remainder of the blue line currently will be filled out with Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, and Miller. Those three represent the type of blue that Jason Botterill appears to be coveting. They move the puck well and particularly excel at zone exits, an area the blue line struggled with for most of last season.
Alex Novet of Hockey Graphs, recently wrote an excellent piece on the importance of zone exits and specifically zone exits with possession. Outside of two players, one of which spent the majority of the season in the AHL, the Sabres defense was not good at exiting the defensive zone. Only Dahlin and Lawrence Pilut were able to do it with any consistency. The remaining defenders that played the majority of the season in Buffalo, have poor microstats in zone exits for their careers as the viz’s above and below show you.
Alex put out a tweet after writing his article that really put a bow on his overall point that you can see below.
24% of all 5v5 goals are scored after the defending team had possession of the puck but failed to exit the zone. That's why zone exits are so crucial, and why we should study how to make them work https://t.co/MqE1r4Q4l0— Alex Novet (@AlexNovet) July 30, 2019
Continuing to maintain a team chock-full of defenders that can’t exit the zone consistently is a recipe for disaster going into next season. It’ll get the club stuck in their own end for extended periods and reduce the ability to maintain possession of the puck throughout the game.
Looking at Sean Tierney’s WAR lineup creator, if you put together a defense group of the likely top six, they combine for a 1.37 WAR rating (not good).
The Sabres currently appear to be willingly moving towards a blue line that will again rely on Ristolainen to play big minutes. I think no matter what side of the debate you fall on with the Finnish defender, the need for a reduction in minutes is clear.
His fourth head coach in Ralph Krueger likely isn’t going to have a magic plan to correct his play 424 games into his career without a drastic usage change. I’ll believe that usage and deployment change is coming when I see it because we’ve heard that lip service before.
They also appear to be willingly heading towards a blue line that continues to struggle to get the puck out of their zone. As well as having a handful of players that cannot consistently perform at an above replacement-level impact.
The frustrating part is that the Sabres have a potential to deploy a blue line that can be a significant improvement over last season and likely won’t do so because of the inability to move players off the roster to this point. Instead, it seems more likely players like Jokiharju and Pilut (when healthy) will begin next season in the AHL. Jokiharju showed last season with the Chicago Blackhawks that he can handle the NHL skill level and Pilut did the same for the Sabres.
Especially in the case of Pilut, there’s no need for him to see the AHL next season besides for a brief conditioning assignment when he’s healthy. He’s going to be 24-years-old in December and at that age in today’s NHL, most players are fully “cooked”. He has four years of pro hockey experience in Sweden and smoothly transitioned to the North American game last season.
If you insert Pilut and Jokiharju into the lineup with the following players below, the WAR lineup creator from Tierney gives a rating of 4.04.
While that number still isn’t exceptional, it sheds some light on how the Sabres have the potential to ice an improved blue line. Also, I understand this metric isn’t a clear indicator of future success, but it is a predictive model that can differentiate the potential improvement in the two scenarios.
The second defense group I outlined above is also made of up of unit that excels in getting the puck out of the defensive zone. At times the team may struggle with mistakes from young players, but will likely see upside in the long run.
We’ll see if Botterill has anything else up his sleeve in the next month in regards to player movement. They have a second buy out window that is currently open, but it’s unlikely they’ll use that route.
If the plan is to run out a blue line that is similar to last season and expecting a different result with a new coach (same defense coach), I have some bad news for what next season could look like. Hopefully, we’ll see the drastic reconstruction of the blue line that we all envisioned in the middle of July.