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Offense continues to be neglected

It’s been a rough few weeks for fans of the Buffalo Sabres. The first month of the season showed promise and so far November has pulled us back down to earth. The Sabres have lost eight of their last nine games and the same issues that have plagued the team continue to be a problem.

Jason Botterill has been the general manager of the club for three years and has failed to come close to addressing one of the biggest issues when he took over. To his credit, Botterill has done a good job addressing the defense and getting that to a respectable place. The same can’t be said for the issues at forward, primarily in regards to the lack of scoring.

Shots are good but mix in some quality

The lack of depth scoring or just 5 on 5 scoring all together has been an issue for the Sabres as long as I can remember. Coming from the Pittsburgh Penguins and their high-powered offense, the hope was the Botterill would get to work addressing that issue. Instead, the offense has continued to come up short and at times be downright nonexistent.

The most concerning thing perhaps has been how the offense doesn’t appear to have improved that much in the few years under Botterill. The team continues to be unable to generate shots from quality scoring areas, which results in them being at the bottom of the league in scoring.

In Botterill’s first year the Sabres finished last in the league in 5 on 5 shot quality with a 1.93 xGF/60, according to Evolving Hockey. Last year, I guess you can say they improved but they still finished 28th in the league with a 2.2 xGF/60. Through 21 games this season, they’ve gone backward. They currently sit 29th in the league in 5 on 5 shot quality with a 2.10 xGF/60.

As a result of this they’ve been 31st (1.8), 21st (2.27), and now 23rd (2.32) in goals for per 60 minutes at 5 on 5. Even just their shot location measurements such as high-danger attempts have been 31st, 23rd, and 23rd respectively over the last three years. Any way you slice it the offense has been inept.

The Sabres are on their second coach under Botterill and you continue to see the same type of offense. The majority of the shots come from low-quality scoring areas and scoring is driven by the same three players (Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart).

Tuesday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild is a perfect example of what I’m referring to. They controlled shot share, but it meant nothing when Minnesota dominated the shot quality. The Sabres settled for an offensive game plan that moved the puck from low to high and emphasized point shots. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and get a goal on a screen or deflection with those shots. However, they’re mainly low-percentage shots that often end up being blocked, missing the net, or stopped by the goaltender without a rebound.

In 21 games this season the Sabres have controlled the shot share at 5 on 5 in 12 of those games. Doing that over 50% of the time is good news. The bad news is that in only seven of the 21 games (33%) have they been better in shot quality. Getting shots is step one to generating offense, but the Sabres fail to execute step two of getting to quality scoring areas.

Through two different coaching staff’s, the players on this roster continue to shoot from the outside or the point. Micah McCurdy’s 5 on 5 shot rate charts paint a bleak picture of this.

Here is the 2017-18 season

Last season

This season

Do you see the trend?

Failure to add offensive talent

I’m sure we all remember Phil Housley beating the drum of “shot mentality”, but that hasn’t been the message from Ralph Kreuger. Yet, we see a similar pattern. That leads me to believe that it’s the majority of the players on the roster that are incapable of generating quality scoring chances regardless of the system.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look at the list of forwards that Botterill added to the roster during his tenure. If you don’t remember, here’s a refresher on all the forwards Botterill added that were not already drafted over the last three years:

Kyle Criscuolo, Seth Griffith, Jacob Josefson, Jordan Nolan, Danny O’Regan, Casey Mittelstadt, Benoit Pouliot, Scott Wilson, Patrik Berglund, Remi Elie, Jeff Skinner, Jason Pominville, Conor Sheary, Vlad Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Marcus Johansson, Curtis Lazar, Jimmy Vesey, Andrew Oglevie, Arttu Ruotsalainen, and Jean-Sebastian Dea.

Adding 21 forwards over three offseasons shows that Sabres’ general manager recognized he had an issue. The problem is the majority of those forwards are bottom-six players. The only real impact forward that he added was Skinner. Outside of that, only Pominville, Sheary, and Johansson (so far) have had any type of positive contribution to the team. At best, those three are middle-six forwards that can contribute but are not going to have a large impact on the outcome of the season.

An argument could be made that Botterill moved out more top six impact forwards (Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane) than he added (Skinner). We expected to see another move all summer to acquire a scoring forward as he added to the blue line and it was clear there was an abundance.

Here we sit with Thanksgiving around the corner and the Sabres have legitimately 12 defenders that can play in the NHL. They continue to slide in obvious need of help at forward. Botterill said that he’s actively searching for help and we’ve heard the rumors over the last few weeks. The problem with trying to make this move now as opposed to the summer is he’s dealing from a position of weakness. Other teams know he needs help badly and are going to look to take advantage of that.

I wish I could offer some sort of way to improve the offense at the end of this, but at this point, the realistic conclusion is they need to add more offensive talent to the roster. Sooner rather than later if they want to save this season from taking a similar path as last year.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and Micah McCurdy

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