Montour a wild-card on Sabres’ blue line

As a pending RFA next summer, it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes Brandon Montour this season

With the ongoing overhaul of the Buffalo Sabres’ defense, one new acquisition stands out as a “wild-card” of sorts for the 2019-20 campaign. As a pending RFA heading into next summer, Brandon Montour’s situation will certainly be interesting to monitor.

Not only will his own individual performance come into play, but the way in which he’s utilized by Ralph Krueger will also be a factor. On the surface, that all sounds pretty obvious, but with the changing defensive landscape in Buffalo (particularly on the right side), there may be an opportunity to not only maximize his strengths, but also manage the cost of his next contract.

It’s no secret that Montour’s time with the Anaheim Ducks last season left something to be desired. The same can be said for several blueliners whose metrics took a hit under Randy Carlyle in 2018-19. Still, despite a reduction in his overall OZS rate last year (prior to his arrival in Buffalo), he did spend nearly all of his time alongside the team’s best all-around defenseman in Hampus Lindholm (a significant upgrade from Francois Beauchemin, his most consistent partner in 2017-18).

That situation can be analyzed in one of two ways. On one hand, a puck-moving defender like Montour should have benefited from a defensively competent (to put it lightly) counterpart in Lindholm. That partnership did however, result in a two-minute bump in his ATOI per-game from 2017-18 along with an increase in quality of competition (which goes hand-in-hand with the aforementioned OZS rate reduction).

The chart below showing the GAR values for the Ducks’ blueliners last season might look ugly at first, but it’s important to look beyond at all of the red next to Montour’s name.

The biggest reason he ranks where he does is because of how poorly he performed from a special-teams standpoint. By every available metric, Montour is a negative impact presence both on the power-play and penalty-kill. If you were to take those phases of the game out of the equation, he ranks closer to the middle of the pack (it is worth noting here that only four of the players listed above dressed in 50 games or more, so a lack of sample size is a factor in some cases).

In terms of blue line control, Montour actually fared quite well. Not only did he hold his position as one of the better zone-exit players in Anaheim, but he showed a marked improvement at thwarting opposing zone-entries.

At a glance, his break-up percentage is only slightly above-average, but when you consider how poorly he fared in that regard leading up to last season, the improvement is rather significant. The chart below from C.J. Turtoro paints a picture of his struggles in that area from 2016-17 and 2017-18.

All things considered, Montour was probably about average for the Ducks at five-on-five. Moving on to his 20-game stint with the Sabres, his even-strength impact was quite good. Now, as with anything, the sample size here cannot be ignored. In his 20-game post-trade deadline stretch with Buffalo, he skated for abut 375 minutes (averaging 21:46 per game).

From an offensive standpoint, his impact was significant. The following chart, which indicates the team’s unblocked shot-rate-for with him on the ice, looks gaudy at an astronomical 20-percent increase per-60, but again, context is critical.

With the Sabres, Montour’s most prominent defensive partner (by far) was none other than Rasmus Dahlin. The three forwards whom he was deployed with most frequently were Phil Housley’s power trio, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Jeff Skinner.

That’s not to take away from Montour’s offensive impact from the back-end, but playing alongside the four most offensively gifted players on the team certainly had something to do with it. On the flip side, his OZS rate under Housley only experienced a modest increase, so it wasn’t as though he had a disproportionate amount of easy zone-starts.

Now that we have an in-depth picture of his performance and usage in 2018-19, it’s time to examine what type of role makes sense for him under Krueger next season. As previously mentioned, the Sabres would be wise to limit his time on special teams, especially when it comes to the power-play.

Keeping Montour on the bench with the man-advantage makes sense, not only from an overall impact standpoint, but what it might mean for his next contract. Over the last two seasons, 18 of his 67 points have come on the power-play. That’s more than one-fourth of his overall scoring production.

By limiting his time in that facet of the game, the Sabres will not only improve their overall impact, but they could limit the amount of vanity points he accrues as a result of being present in that role, which would have subsequently boosted his market-value. It may sound petty, but like it or not, when it comes to contract negotiation in the NHL, point production is still king.

With Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju joining the fold this summer, the right side of the Sabres’ defense appears to be set up nicely moving forward. Will Borgen will likely get another year in Rochester, but his development to this point has been encouraging. Although his exit has been considered a foregone conclusion to some, until he isn’t, Rasmus Ristolainen remains a member of the blue-and-gold.

The point is, for the first time in a long time, there is defensive depth in Buffalo. So, in Montour’s case, which left-side partner makes the most sense, and would provide the most complimentary impact?

On one hand, there is no denying that he and Dahlin played very well together to close out last season. From a Corsi standpoint, their mark of 57.38-percent shouldn’t be ignored. Montour is no stranger to heavy minutes at five-on-five, and his 19-year-old counterpart is more than competent enough defensively to make up for his net-front shortcomings.

There is also an argument to be made that Montour’s talent would be best maximized in a more sheltered role, against weaker competition. If Krueger sees the situation similarly, he might elect to pair him with Jake McCabe.

As defenders, they’re essentially polar opposites. McCabe is much more of a competent net-front, presence who struggles mightily from a zone-exit standpoint. In fact, according to the chart below, no Sabre defenseman was less effective in that regard last season.

As one of the best puck-moving assets on the back-end, Montour seems like a perfect match for the oft-injured fan favorite. The decision will essentially boil down to who Krueger feels is the best fit alongside Dahlin on the top pairing, but for the sake of balance, a McCabe-Montour partnership makes a lot of sense.

Either way, Montour’s performance will be second only to Reinhart’s (who is also set to become an RFA next summer), as the most interesting to monitor in 2019-20. If he can build on the success he experienced in Buffalo at the end of last season, he will likely remain a part of Jason Botterill’s long-term plans. After all, the third-year GM wouldn’t have traded Brendan Guhle and a first-round pick if he didn’t see him as part of the fold moving forward.

Should he falter, and resemble the average player we saw under Carlyle in Anaheim, then the team is really under no pressure to retain him. The front office has acquired enough talent on the right side where they don’t necessarily need to pursue an extension in that case, especially if he expects a significant raise from his current cap hit of $3.387 million. Not that they would ever let him walk for nothing, but they have options, if necessary.

Zone-Entry and GAR Value Charts, courtesy of Charting Hockey

A3Z Player Tracking Chart, courtesy of C.J. Turtoro

RAPM Chart, courtesy of Evolving Hockey

Shot Heat Maps, courtesy of Hockey Viz

Corsi and Linemate Data, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick