Analyzing Montour’s start in Buffalo

Newly acquired defenseman, Brandon Montour is providing positive results early-on for the Sabres

Less than 24 hours before the NHL trade deadline, the Buffalo Sabres acquired defenseman, Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for prospect, Brendan Guhle and a first-round draft pick. For the most part, fans were excited. The organization was missing a consistent puck-moving presence on the right side of the blue line, and Montour had been a name on the rumor mill for some time.

Still, several members of the advanced stats community issued words of caution regarding his less-than stellar underlying numbers with Anaheim. While six games in Buffalo isn’t much of a sample size to work with, the early returns have certainly been promising.  With two goals and two assists to his name since his arrival, not only is he appearing on the score sheet, but his advanced metrics have also been a breath of fresh air.

In four of his six contests with the Sabres thus far, Montour has posted a positive Corsi ratio. In two of those games, he’s accounted for the highest Corsi-for ratio among Sabres defenders. Prior to an absolute stinker of a performance against the Colorado Avalanche this weekend (where, let’s face it, pretty much everyone in a blue-and-gold uniform was absolutely dreadful), Montour actually had  the highest Corsi differential on the Buffalo blue line. In that game, he posted an abysmal Corsi-for of 28.57, which dropped him down to fifth on that same list (again, a problem of small sample sizes resulting in dramatic statistical fluctuation).

Fortunately, he was performing so well prior to that game, that it only dropped his Corsi-for to 50.0 on the nose, as a Sabre. We’ll see if this performance ends up being an outlier at the end of the year, but everything he had done leading up to it was quite good, which inspires some optimism.

One of the more intriguing, and thought provoking, aspects of his arrival revolves around how he’s been utilized to this point. While he hasn’t had much consistency in terms of his defensive partners, the results are promising in some cases, and not so great in others.

The player with whom he’s spent the most time thus far is Zach Bogosian. Through 36:10 of action, as a duo, they’ve fared quite nicely, posting a Corsi-for of 53.57. Though they are both right-shot defensemen (an overrated characteristic, but that’s a discussion for a different time), they’ve managed to sync up pretty well in limited time together.

Montour’s results are less inspiring when paired with Marco Scandella and Matt Hunwick, two players who have faced their fair share of criticism this season. In a relatively equal amount of time spent with each of them (39:40 combined), Montour’s Corsi-for plummets down to 36.98. Given his talent as an outlet passer, it makes sense that Montour’s numbers would suffer with partners who aren’t strong with the puck in their own zone, and would conceivably struggle to get the puck on his stick.

According to reports from practice yesterday, it appears as though he’ll be saddled alongside Scandella once again when the Sabres take on the Dallas Stars tonight. It will be interesting to see if that duo can reverse their fortunes, but the early numbers would indicate not.

One player whose skill set seems to best-compliment Montour’s is the teammate with whom he’s spent the least amount of time. While Jake McCabe has been far from exceptional this season, the data indicates that perhaps a player like Montour could be just what he needs to get back on track.

Throughout their respective careers (since 2016, that is) they’ve exhibited strengths where the other is deficient. As a zone-exit and offensive zone-entry specialist, Montour could serve as useful for a player like McCabe who struggles in those areas. Conversely, as a great zone-entry defender, McCabe would offer much needed support for Montour who has experienced difficulty without the puck in the defensive own zone. Hopefully, Phil Housley will test these two out for an extended period of time before the season comes to a close, in order to gauge whether or not the data trends do indeed result in a viable potential pairing for 2019-20.

Shifting our focus to overall usage, it’s clear that Housley has been testing Montour out in a variety of deployment ratios, the most interesting of which came against the Chicago Blackhawks last week.

What you’ll notice in the chart above is the fact that Montour did not receive a single offensive zone-start in that game. As a Sabre, his zone-start ratio has been pretty even, so what was the logic in this particular matchup?

As can be divulged from the previous chart showing his career metrics, we notice that Montour is very proficient at defensive zone-exits. While he is certainly still categorized as an “offensive defenseman”, deploying him in an offensive zone-heavy ratio isn’t necessarily the best use of his skill set. Against Chicago, Housley may have recognized this and elected to proportion his defensive zone-starts more heavily so that he could help reduce sustained pressure from the Blackhawks’ forwards. That strategy worked pretty well (on an individual case basis, of course) as Montour finished the game with a Corsi-for of 64.29, the highest mark among Sabres defenders, despite frequently starting at the opposite end of the ice.

Perhaps we’re reading too far into this one outing. After all, Housley shifted his zone-start ratio back to a more even deployment the following game. Still, this may actually represent the best use of Montour’s abilities moving forward.

Again, we’re talking about a six-game sample size here, but there is a lot of very interesting data at our disposal, which helps us analyze the type of player Montour can be for the Sabres in the coming years. Regardless, it appears as though Jason Botterill has effectively checked one of the items off of his increasingly long offseason shopping list.

Player Comparison Chart courtesy of C.J. Turtoro

Zone Deployment Chart courtesy of HockeyViz

Corsi Data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick