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Analyzing Simmonds’ potential impact with the Sabres

As their first of two transactions on trade deadline day, the Buffalo Sabres sent a conditional fifth-round draft pick in 2021 to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for veteran forward, Wayne Simmonds. As a pending unrestricted free agent, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the 31-year-old will have on a Sabres team looking to bust the league’s longest standing playoff drought.

Few would disagree with the assertion that Simmonds’ best days as a player are behind him.  Last season with the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators, he posted his lowest relative Corsi and expected-goals impacts since 2010-11. His 30 points in 79 games between the two clubs were also the lowest base output since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Kings.

While his differential metrics weren’t pretty, in 2019-20, he did post positive defensive impacts for the first time in four years.

Interestingly enough, the Flyers and Predators used the then 30-year-old in very different capacities. In Philadelphia, where he posted better (albeit still negative) metrics last season), the Flyers deployed him in the defensive-zone 53.53-percent of the time, his highest ratio in over a decade. The Predators on the other hand, used him in a much heavier offensive capacity with an OZS rate of 59.72 percent (a 13.25-percent delta).

This season, the Devils went back to the defensively tilted approach with Simmonds, which has resulted in modestly improved overall metrics. His relative Corsi has improved to -.02 (up 1.2-percent), while his xG rate of -.75-percent is pretty consistent (a couple hundredths of a percent better) with his production from a year ago. Overall, these numbers are much more a replication of his impacts in Philadelphia (where he was utilized similarly) than Nashville.

Any way you want to slice it, his current marks are a pretty far cry from his best analytical season which occurred as a 26-year-old with the Flyers in 2015-16, a year where he posted a career-high 32 goals, and matched his best point-total of 60.

Before we dive into what to expect from Simmonds as a Sabre, it’s important to note the wide variation of success (or lack thereof) he experienced with his two most consistent linemates in New Jersey, Pavel Zacha, and Jack Hughes. In the 284:30 he skated with Zacha this season, the two struggled mightily, posting an abysmal relative expected-goals percentage of -6.40.

Conversely, with Hughes as his pivot, there was a great deal of success, In terms of Corsi, Simmonds’ marks experienced a 4.48-percent positive increase, and his relative xG-percentage saw a similar improvement at 2.57-percent. In this case, both players performed better with the other, though Simmonds was impacted more significantly. This could indicate that, as Hughes has progressed during his rookie season, his skill set had become more complimentary to that of his veteran counterpart. What’s also interesting is that in roughly 144 minutes together, Zacha has caused a similar drag on Hughes’ metrics that we saw with Simmonds. There seems to be something of a common denominator there.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Zacha was a bad fit, while Hughes conversely helped elevate Simmonds’ underlying production. Either way, at this point in his career, it’s clear that his success is reliant on whom he’s skating with. Not exactly surprising, but he’s no longer a player who can be relied upon to drive possession. For all intents and purposes, he’s a complimentary asset.

Now that we have some of the background data, let’s take a look at where Simmonds excels, and where he struggles as we try to find the best possible use for him in Buffalo. Interestingly enough, while his differential metrics are similar to what they were last season in Philadelphia under a similar usage structure (as previously outlined), it’s for completely different reasons.

During his stint with the Devils, the RAPM metrics flip-flopped to an extent from what we saw last season. His defensive impacts took a negative hit, while his offensive metrics showed improvement. A big part of that likely has to do with the system in New Jersey. As it currently stands, there is not a single Devils forward with a positive Corsi differential in 2019-20. In fact, none of them are particularly close.

From an expected-goals standpoint, only Jesper Bratt and Blake Coleman (now a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning), have posted positive differentials. Simply put, the Devils are a very bad team.

When referencing Simmonds’ RAPM chart for this season, an interesting disparity exists between his actual goals-for, and his expected goals-for. With eight tallies on the season in comparison to 14 expected markers, the gap is pretty staggering. The good news is, even at 31 years old, he’s still very skilled at getting into high-danger areas. The bad news is, he’s only converting on 7.3-percent of his shots-on-goal (by far his lowest mark since his rookie season).

So what does this mean for the Sabres? Basically, they need to (and sort of have) bet on him to maintain his offensive positional ability, while also finding his shot again in short order. If that can happen, an offensive burst could occur, which would be a welcome change in the Sabres’ middle-six forward ranks. In that scenario, Buffalo will have obtained a 40-point scoring-pace asset for a mere fifth-round pick two years from now. Not bad.

Of course, with this comes the task of sheltering him defensively to an extent. That doesn’t necessarily mean deploying in an offensive zone-heavy role, but his linemates need to be strong in transition. Luckily, Ralph Kruger has implemented a system that has resulted in team-wide defensive improvements. So, while offensively the Sabres are only in a mildly better state of affairs than the Devils, defensively, they are far superior, and could be able to mask some of Simmonds weaknesses as a result.

If it didn’t mean breaking up the highly-successful “LOG” line, a center like Johan Larsson might be an ideal fit to compliment Simmonds. Since that’s not going to happen, a player like Curtis Lazar could serve as a defensively responsible pivot alongside him. Add in a halfway decent zone-transition forward like Marcus Johansson and it might result in a dangerous middle-six trio. Unless Krueger wants Simmonds’ line to get torched defensively, that might be the best way to balance and optimize his new addition.

Shortly after the trade became official, Simmonds appeared on NHL Network where he expressed excitement about helping the Sabres push for an unlikely postseason bid, and an openness to stay in Western New York long-term (he did waive his NMC to be here after all). That conversation is premature, and “long-term” is a bit of a scary thought when talking about a depreciating asset approaching their mid-30’s.

Still, for the rest of this season (and if all goes well, maybe a year or two after that), his veteran presence and physicality will add a new element to the Buffalo locker room in what promises to be a challenging 20-game stretch. Realistically, the Sabres probably need to win a minimum of 13-14 of those contests in order to keep playing hockey into mid-April. If they want to defy the odds, they’ll need players who give it their all every single night, and Simmonds is certainly that.

Corsi, xG, and TOI metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

RAPM Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey

Corsi-Differential Chart and Shot Map courtesy of Charting Hockey

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