Low quality point shots are stifling the Sabres offense

The Sabres focus on low quality shots from the point is a primary reason for their poor shot quality measurements

Time and again over the last few years we’ve discussed how the Buffalo Sabres offense leaves you wanting more. This season has continued the trend of poor 5 on 5 offense by generating little quality with their shot attempts.

There’s no denying that the Sabres lack the necessary forwards to consistently create offense to propel the team to victory. On top of that problem, the offensive system in place doesn’t seem to have a high likelihood of success by playing this style.

Low to High

Watching the game, you’ll notice that the Sabres often settle on shots from the point in the offensive zone when they have established possession. They establish a cycle on the outside and eventually the forward will distribute the puck low to high and it results in a low-quality shot most of the time.

I grabbed two clips from last night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings to show you the type of plays I’m referring to. In this first one, Michael Frolik goes low to high with a pass to Rasmus Ristolainen and he goes across ice to Brandon Montour for the shot. The shot from Montour registered a 1.69 xG value according to Evolving Hockey. This attempt does result in a good rebound chance for Jeff Skinner.

The next video is Frolik again going low to high. He passes it to Rasmus Dahlin and he goes across the ice to Colin Miller. Miller puts a low quality wrist shot on net that is blocked by the Red Wings defender.

This observation sent me down a path to figure out just how much the Sabres do rely on point shots and in general the idea of how impactful a defenseman is on the offense.

Let’s start from a high level and work our way down. Micah McCurdy shared a chart last week that you’ll see below, which shows the percentage of goals at 5 on 5 from 2007-2020 based on location. Not surprisingly, point shots have the lowest likelihood of resulting in a goal.

Now, let’s look at another chart (below) from Micah’s site. This one shows the Sabres 5 on 5 unblocked shot rates in the offensive zone. Note the highest concentration of shots (red) are from near the blue line or the side walls with very little being generated in the middle of the ice.

Take a moment to scroll back and look at the two charts. Ralph, we have a problem.

The Sabres enter play tonight as the worst team in the league in shot quality for at 5 on 5 according to Evolving Hockey with a 1.98 xGF per 60 minutes. If the Sabres finish the season with that low of shot quality measurement in expected goals, it’ll be the lowest since the 2017-18 season. Who was the lowest that season you ask? Well, it was the Sabres with a 1.93 xGF/60 in year one of Jason Botterill’s tenure.

Shot Quality from the Defensemen

At this point, we’ve identified the problem and at a high level it checks out. The Sabres take a lot of shots from the blue line and it contributes to their low shot quality. I want to narrow the view a little more to see if the theory checks out when you dig a little deeper.

Unfortunately, I can’t easily identify which shots are “from the point” when I look at the defensemen. So, what I did was look at the individual shot attempts and individual shot quality of all defenders in the NHL. First, I wanted to see if the Sabres, as a team, get more shots from their defensemen compared to other teams. So, I looked at the percentage of total team shot attempts (Corsi) at 5 on 5 that came from defensemen on the team.

As you can see above, the Sabres ranked in the middle of the pack in the NHL in that regard. Based on my thought process, I was surprised to see that they were not higher. So, they don’t get an overabundance of shots from defensemen, but that doesn’t really answer if the shots they do get from defensemen are from the blue line primarily. Let’s look at the shot quality per shot from defensemen by team:

Here, the Sabres are the sixth lowest in shot quality per shot by defensemen. In theory, that indicates to me that most of the shots that come from defenders are indeed from the point or at the very least low-quality scoring areas. The Sabres actually have two defensemen in the bottom 20 of quality per shot attempt among those that have played at least 200 minutes. Miller has the 19th lowest individual shot quality per attempt and Jake McCabe has the fifth lowest.

This last chart below plots shot attempts percentage from defensemen and quality per shot with a look at overall team shot quality. The Sabres are creeping towards the quadrant of teams that get a higher percentage of their shot attempts from defensemen and those shots are low in quality.

The variation in shades of the dots indicate which teams have a high (darker blue) overall team shot quality measurement at 5 on 5 and which have the lowest (light blue). There are only a handful of teams that are near the top in percentage of shots from defensemen and high quality from those shots. Four of those five teams are at the top of the league in shot quality for at 5 on 5.

Overall you don’t want to rely heavily on your defensemen to provide shot attempts for your team. Forwards do a better job at driving offense and quality shooting opportunities. This brings into question the overall impact of defensemen and if they’re overvalued in terms of roster building. We’ll save that discussion for another day.

The offensive system in place this season, that has had a reliance on point shots, could be the approach due to the lack of scoring talent on the roster. It’s not out of the question that Krueger was hoping his defensive zone improvements along with an offense built around getting pucks to the net and creating chaos from that was his best chance for success.

Once the Sabres add more offensive talent to their forward group, Krueger will need to adjust his system to give his club the opportunity generate quality offense with consistency.

Data via Evolving Hockey and Hockeyviz.com