Last week, members of the analytics community began posting their anticipated team point totals for the 2019-20 season. The most widely-discussed projection came from Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic when he pegged the Buffalo Sabres at 80.2 points (though most of the others also had the Sabres landing in the 78-82 point range).
As is tradition, fans in Western New York began discussing the factors that could result in a potentially brighter outlook than what is being forecast by the data specialists. The popular intangible that many fans turned toward as a beacon of optimism was the arrival of a new coach (and assuredly, a new system) in Ralph Krueger.
Obviously, coaching is the one thing that the numbers can’t really account for. This is especially the case when it comes to Krueger, who hasn’t been behind an NHL bench in nearly seven years. From a player personnel standpoint, the roster has experienced some change, particularly on the back end. The arrival of Brandon Montour, Colin Miller, and Henri Jokiharju will presumably result in an improvement over the lackluster starting-six from last season.
Offensively, the alterations have been less extreme. Aside from Victor Olofsson’s seemingly inevitable promotion to a full-time role with the big club, middle-six contributors in Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey were the only other summer additions. As a whole, most of the same faces from last season’s 76-point squad are set to return in 2019-20, and while improvements have been made, they’ve been relatively modest overall.
Which brings us back to Krueger. The good news is that, from a tactical standpoint, it would be tough for him to do any worse than Phil Housley did last season. The bad news is that expecting a first-year coach to take a projected 80-point team and put them in a position to exceed expectations by 16-18 points (i.e. a playoff spot) is a pretty big ask. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but barring another move before the season opener, the odds are stacked against the Sabres to break their league-leading eight-year playoff drought.
All of this being said, marked progress still needs to occur this season, even if it doesn’t result in a playoff birth just yet. With that in mind, let’s examine a few key areas where Krueger can make minor, yet impactful, tactical changes in order to get the most out of his work-in-progress lineup.
Abandon Lopsided Deployment Tactics
Failure to optimize forward combinations and defensive pairings was the hallmark of Housley’s tenure in Buffalo. Up front, his refusal to separate his “mega-line” of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart resulted in a squad that relied almost exclusively on one line to produce all of the team’s offense.
With that, the Sabres became an easy team for opposing coaches to plan against. Find a way to shut down the top line, and force the lackluster supporting cast to pick up the slack. Because of his penchant for stacking his lines, specialist trios existed beyond the top unit. This of course, resulted in a defensively capable (yet offensively inept), fourth line which almost exclusively took their draws in the defensive zone (nearly 84% D-zone deployment in 2018-19).
Few will claim that Housley had a glut of talent at his disposal, however, creating niche lines made his squad predictable, and subsequently ineffective. In order to buck the trend we saw last season, Kruger might be best suited to pursue line combinations that represent a sort of complimentary balance, rather than specialization.
Obviously, we’re not talking about each line receiving an equal zone-deployment ratio, however the over-reliance on exclusive personnel in specific deployment situations should be adjusted for the sake of overall optimization (i.e. a wider range of tactical match-up options in various situations). Simply put - don’t be so gosh darn predictable.
Address Zone-Exit Deficiencies
Under Housley, the Sabres defensive corps was one of the least effective units in the league at exiting the zone. Jason Botterill clearly recognized that the issue was due in large part to personnel deficiencies. In just five months time, he has acquired three assets on the back end who thrive in that area in Montour, Miller and Jokiharju.
At times, Housley’s breakout “system” was difficult to identify. A lack of talent clearly exacerbated the issue, but the absence of tactical cohesion was evident as well.
As illustrated above, only Rasmus Dahlin and Lawrence Pilut displayed proficiency as zone-exit entities last season. On top of the team’s issues with outlet passes, there was also inconsistency pertaining to when defenders were expected to jump into the offensive rush.
During last week’s Prospects Challenge, Joe Yerdon of The Athletic spoke with young defenseman Will Borgen about Kruger’s expectations from the Sabres’ blueliners.
“I think it’s a little more aggressive, I like it,” Borgen said. “It’s a lot more stepping up and just trying to pressure the puck at all points. Like, just be on it. I get (that I’ve) got to get it moving quick up ice.”
Krueger’s apparent emphasis on quick transitions is a breath of fresh air. That method could however, present difficulties for incumbent roster players who struggle in transition, regardless of system. The necessity for quick decision-making could both improve the team’s zone-exit ratios, and highlight deficiencies of those who struggle to quickly analyze optimal passing opportunities up ice. Still, the aforementioned new additions will certainly help in that regard, and it should result in a more aggressive, unified strategy on the back end.
Make the Penalty-Kill Aggressive Again
Another hallmark of the Sabres’ 2018-19 defensive strategy, was the penalty-kill unit’s tendency to collapse in on itself amid sustained pressure. It’s part of the reason why a unit that started the season near the top of the NHL, found its way to the middle of the pack by the end of the year.
While that technique did help limit how effectively their opponents executed cross-ice passes, it helped create a higher rate of rebounds in the slot. In a basic sense, it was overly-conservative, which may seem like an odd label when discussing the penalty-kill.
As you can see from the chart above, the Sabres PK unit did a nice job of limiting opportunities from the slot, but they allowed a heavy concentration of tap-in opportunities directly in front of the net. This approach made sense against teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who took most of their shots from the slot on the power-play, but that isn’t necessarily the norm across the league.
With a more aggressive approach, teams might have to make hastier decisions when cycling the puck in the Sabres’ zone, which would result in fewer point-blank tap-in opportunities in deep. It is also worth noting that no team had fewer shorthanded goals than Buffalo in 2018-19, as they registered only three on the year. That lack of a threat is another factor that can be attributed to the aforementioned strategy in place.
This of course is a peripheral concern, as there was only a 4% gap separating Buffalo from the Lightning and the Arizona Coyotes , who were tied for he league’s most effective PK-unit last season.
Stop Trying to Make Scandella-Ristolainen Happen
It’s not going to happen.
Now that we have our turn of the millennium movie reference out of the way, with both Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen presumably back in the fold next season, Krueger simply cannot repeat Housley’s ill-advised decision to constantly pair them together.
Over the last two seasons, Ristolainen has played with Scandella more than any other partner (and it’s not even close), spending over 1,245 minutes together in that span. While their frequency as a duo was reduced in 2018-19, they were still the third-most consistent tandem on the Sabres’ back end.
In what is nothing short of an exorbitantly conclusive sample size, it’s beyond obvious that these two players are a bad fit for one another. From a Corsi standpoint, both players are historically better without the other (particularly in Ristolainen’s case), and last season, they were the Sabres’ least effective pairing from an xG standpoint.
Regardless of what the data (and most people with a functioning set of eyes) was telling him, Housley continued to go back to this duo as a poorly devised safety-valve in tough situations. Long story short, Krueger must find Ristolainen a partner with whom his skill set can be optimized (insert broken record joke here). Given the success he experienced beside Pilut last season, perhaps that pairing would be wise to revisit.
As for Scandella, at this point, his best partner might be a seat in the press box once Pilut and Zach Bogosian return from their respective offseason surgeries.
Most of the agenda items above require only minor adjustments. All together, they served as pieces of a larger puzzle during Housley’s failed tenure. If Krueger can successfully implement these small changes to the Sabres’ overall strategy, it should be enough to help his squad experience a moderate improvement in the standings this season.
While an 80-point projection may seem a little harsh on the surface (especially considering the team’s re-vamped defensive ranks), as previously mentioned, the metrics can only base the anticipated totals off the data at their disposal. This isn’t to say that the Sabres were ever a dormant playoff team over the past two seasons, but they could have been significantly better had these tactical deficiencies been recognized by the coaching staff.
We’ll have to wait and see how he plans to handle things like player deployment, line combinations, and the like. For a team that simply doesn’t have to talent to cover up sub-optimal coaching decisions, Krueger’s ability to put his team in the right position to suit their strengths will be critical.