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Montour could benefit from a shift in zone deployment

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The Sabres may want to reconsider how they deploy Brandon Montour to get the most success out of him

Vancouver Canucks v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the more frustrating players this season for the Buffalo Sabres has been Brandon Montour. Some nights I think he’s a core top-four defenseman moving forward. Other nights I feel like the Sabres may want to consider trading him for help at forward.

He has a skill set that is appealing to the eye, but he doesn’t do much at either end of the ice. In the offensive zone, he doesn’t create a lot of offense or contribute positively. At the other end of the ice, while I think his defensive game is underrated, he’s not exceptional at that area either. I don’t find myself getting down on his play from game to game, but it doesn’t do a lot for me either. I need more from Montour than just being there.

I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.

Transition Defender

When the Canadian-born defender was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks last February, the underlying data on him was not impressive. A lot of people, including myself, chalked that up to playing under the poor coaching of Randy Carlyle. A handful of players that got away from his system have found success elsewhere. One such example is Marcus Pettersson. He just signed a new contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being acquired last season from the Ducks.

So far with the Sabres, the poor underlying numbers have followed Montour. He’s below break-even in shot attempts (48.16% CF%) and shot quality (43.62% xGF%) at 5 on 5 according to Evolving Hockey. He carries a 53.33% goal differential at 5 on 5, but that’s primarily due to a team-high on-ice save percentage of 94.18%.

The most impressive part of Montour’s game is his transition game. He excels at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone. His microstats have been impressive throughout his career. You can see in CJ Turtoro’s A3Z tool below using Corey Sznajder’s tracking data that Montour has a good track record over three years entering this season.

He’s continued to be a leading force in exiting the defensive zone with possession this season for the Sabres. How well the 25-year-old defender starts the play up the ice is one of the reasons I landed on a theory to get better results out of the player.

Deployment Change

For most of his career and in Buffalo, Montour has been deployed in more offensive zone starts. He’s had the reputation of an offensive defenseman, but I’m not sure that reputation is accurate. He doesn’t impact team offense when his club has set up possession in the offensive zone. Where Montour is a threat offensively is on the rush in transition. He’s able to jump into the play and catch the defense off guard.

This has also led me to believe that it may wise for the Sabres to transition Montour into a modern-day defensive defenseman. I’m not saying to turn him into Niklas Hjalmarsson. My thought process is to use the areas in his game where he excels to get better on-ice impacts. As we discussed, his transition ability is his strong point and his offense comes on the rush. Therefore using him more in defensive zone situations allows him to utilize his best tools.

I wanted to see if my theory was backed up by the numbers. Thus I went back and looked game logs for Montour over the last three seasons (2017-2020) and wanted to see if his on-ice impacts were different in situations where he started less than 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone. As you’ll see in the table below, there is a difference in the numbers that back up what I’m trying to sell here.

Montour has a lower goals against (GA/60), shot attempts against (CA/60), and shot quality against (xGA/60) per 60 minutes at 5 on 5 when he’s deployed less than 50% in the offensive zone. The two sample sizes are large enough to have confidence that a small sample size is not impacting an impact one way or the other. He’s played a little more than 1,400 minutes in games under 50% oZS and just over 1,900 minutes in games higher than 50%.

Conclusion

This season, Montour has a 57% offensive zone start rate at 5 on 5 under Ralph Krueger. Admittedly there’s not a large discrepancy in the on-ice numbers, but there is enough data over three years to back up the idea that this could something worth taking for a test drive the remainder of the season.

Montour is a restricted free agent this summer and over the final 31 games of the season, the Sabres need to figure out what they have in him. They have some decisions to make this summer on the blue line and he’s part of that. The Sabres are in desperate need of help at forward and Montour could be used as a trade piece if they don’t believe he’ll be the player they’re hoping for.

However, the Sabres did pay a good price to acquire him and they’ll likely want to hand him an extension this summer. Finding out a way to get the best results out of the player will be beneficial for both sides.

Data via Evolving Hockey and Corey Sznajder