State of the Sabres’ defense

The Buffalo Sabres’ revamped blue line has produced mixed results through the first 21 games of 2019-20

In what continues to look more and more like an offseason that left something to be desired, Jason Botterill put most of his focus on upgrading the Buffalo Sabres’ blue line this past summer. Through 21 games, the results have been somewhat mixed, to put it lightly. The top-six showed flashes of becoming a strong group in transition to start the season, but over the last handful of games, they look more like the same group that struggled in 2018-19, despite several new faces.

Now that we’ve officially hit the quarter-mark of the 2019-20 campaign, we’ll take a look at which members of the Sabres’ defensive top-six have been consistent (both positively, and negatively) and which have been a mixed-bag of sorts in the early-going.

The Good

First, let’s examine which blueliners have put together a strong start to the year. Contextually, this section will serve as space for players (or duos) who are either clearly exceeding expectations, or those with high expectations who, to this point, have done a good job of meeting them.

The Jokiharju-Scandella Combo

What a breath of fresh air the Henri Jokiharju and Macro Scandella duo has been to start the season. For a 20-year-old playing in a new city (who, barring something unforeseen, is playing his first full season of exclusively NHL action), and an elder statesman who ran out of favor with his poor performance in 2018-19, it’s hard not to be impressed with their cohesion as a unit so far.

Botterill’s acquisition of Jokiharju in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks (a one-for-one that sent the ever-inconsistent Alex Nylander to the Windy City), has flown under the radar as one of the best moves of his tenure. Analytically, a case can be made that in limited time with the Hawks last season, he was the team’s top defenseman. His ability to not only effectively find his forwards exiting the zone, but also remain positionally sound as a defender, is executed with a level of poise and consistency beyond his years.

For Scandella, a player whom most fans (myself included) wanted to see dealt in any way possible this summer, his adjusted role alongside a competent, two-way asset has been critical for his newfound success in Buffalo. That’s not to take away from the fact that his individual bone-headed plays per-60 has experienced a reduction too, but there is no doubt that playing alongside a capable zone-exit entity in Jokiharju has helped him focus on doing what he does best as a physical, defensive defenseman.

It’s no surprise that these two are the only Sabres defensive regulars who have accounted for a positive xGF percentage through the first 21 games. Clearly, Ralph Kruger recognizes how their respective skill sets have complimented one another (how could you not?), which is why they’ve played as a pair more consistently than any other two defensemen on the roster so far this season.

In terms of deployment, their zone-starts have been slightly less defensive, but still relatively even overall at 52.46-percent OZS. Their versatility in that regard gives Krueger options. If they can stay consistent, don’t be surprised if these two see a small up-tick in 5-on-5 ice time as the season marches on. Averaging just over 15 minutes per game at 5-on-5, they’re accounting for the fewest minutes among the team’s current defensive pairings, which is fine for now, considering how well they’ve handled that responsibility.

Struggling (But it’s not all their fault)

Obviously, there have been issues with the team’s new look defensive corps this season. For the players who are playing poorly, a portion of the blame belongs to the coaching staff, and by extension, how they’re being utilized. For nearly every Sabre defender who has put forth a poor performance, an counter-argument regarding optimization can be made in their defense.

Rasmus Dahlin

For as much of a revelation the Jokiharju-Scandella pairing has been thus far, Rasmus Dahlin’s rough start has been conversely deflating. Everything that made the 18-year-old phenom great under Phil Housley has seemingly been pulled back under Krueger.

Krueger has expressed a desire for his franchise cornerstone to focus more on his game away from the puck. Whether or not that message is getting into the young man’s head is unknown, but he couldn’t look any less comfortable on the ice.

The free-wheeling, offensively gifted Dahlin rarely hesitated to carry the puck and lead the offensive rush last season (you know, the things that make him a generational offensive defenseman). This year, he appears to hesitate, often eager to get the puck off his stick as quickly as possible.

Simply put, it seems as though he is being lead away from utilizing his greatest strengths and that’s a big problem. It has probably contributed to his current standing as the team’s worst defenseman from an analytics perspective. He’s been benched, his time in key situations has been reduced, and his overall utilization has taken a noticeable shift.

For a player that had a positive impact on nearly every one of his partners from 2018-19, he’s only posted a positive Corsi-for rating alongside Brandon Montour, who has only been back in the lineup for seven games. Obviously, the coaching staff isn’t completely to blame here. They’re not forcing him into ill-sighted zone-exit passes, and they’re not causing him to fan on pucks in transition. Still, putting your teenage player in a position to magnify his natural strengths needs to be more of a priority.

While this is certainly unsettling, there is still no cause for alarm. Dahlin will be fine, but the way in which he’s being handled by the coaching staff is head-scratching. Letting him free-wheel as a rookie only to put the training wheels back on the following season is a weird look.

The McCabe-Ristolainen Combo

This pairing is tough to analyze. On one hand, they’re not playing well. On the other hand, it’s for the same exact reasons they’ve both struggled for years, metrically.

For starters, their deployment as the team’s top defensive pairing doesn’t suit them. For McCabe, he’s a third-pairing talent that has been thrust into a top-pairing role by yet another coaching staff. Ristolainen, a man whose most ardent supports will admit that he’s been historically over-encumbered by this franchise, continues to be the clubhouse leader in ice time alongside a partner whose skill set does not compliment him.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The first thing that stands out when reviewing the underlying data is their relative Corsi differential as a pair. Their mark of -3.94-percent isn’t even that terrible, especially when you consider their zone-deployment in comparison to their respective strengths and weaknesses as players. With an OZS rate of 39.05-percent (the lowest ratio on the team among defensemen), they’re being heavily relied upon in defensive situations, particularly when preserving a lead.

That is a problem. In enlisting two of your most sub-par zone-exit assets to handle that type of responsibility, you’re not doing them any favors in terms of shot-share. Now compound that shortcoming on top of the fact that these two men are routinely squaring-off against their opponent’s top forward groups, and you are essentially just re-creating the problem that has existed since Ristolainen was a teenager in Buffalo.

One of the popular narratives among fans on social media this summer surrounded Krueger and the positive effect he might have on a player like Ristolainen. So far, his decision to continue trying the same deployment and workload strategies that have failed to optimize his skill set for years, has produced the same results.

No matter which side of the Ristolainen spectrum you’re currently sitting on (i.e. those wanting to trade him, and those wanting to find a way to actually use him properly), everything that they’re doing is bad.

He’s been predictably removed from the top power-play unit, so his point totals have diminished (again, predictably). He’s on pace for a 28-point campaign, so his trade value certainly isn’t going up. So, not only are they hurting themselves from a team performance standpoint by perpetually jamming this square peg into a round hole, but they’re ruining any chance to trade him for anything significant, if that was indeed ever a serious consideration.

So, what’s the solution here? Well, for one, you could recall a player like Lawrence Pilut, with whom Ristolainen performed quite well last season in limited time. That of course would require Botterill to part with one (or likely more) of his dozen NHL-caliber defensemen, something he doesn’t appear interested in doing. It might also require replacing McCabe, who is probably the fourth-best LHD in the organization, but he’s got an “A” on his chest, so don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

The more simple answer would me a reduction in minutes against lesser competition, but again, that doesn’t appear to be an avenue the coaching staff is interested in pursuing.

The Inconsistent (and it’s kind of his fault)

Colin Miller

Fans of the Sabres were generally pretty excited this summer when Botterill managed to acquire Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights for the modest cost of a second, and fifth-round draft pick. At the beginning of the year, Miller performed as advertised. He was smooth in transition and played a steady, responsible game in his own end.

Miller’s performance has fluctuated in unison with the Sabres as a team. As they started to drop consecutive games leading up to the Global Series in Sweden, his decision making got progressively worse, as did his positional awareness in front of his own net. Warranted or not, he ended up in the press box for a couple games as a result.

It’s tough to pinpoint what’s really going wrong with Miller. His shot-share metrics are absolutely dreadful, and the Sabres are giving up more chances-against with him on the ice.

It’s not even as though he’s playing more than he’s used to at five-on-five. In fact, his numbers in that regard are nearly identical to last season (slightly less, in fact). While his defensive-zone deployment rate has experienced an increase of about eight-percent, that probably isn’t enough of a disparity to help explain his adjusted relative Corsi mark of -2.07, and relative xGF rate of -1.84.

From a teammate standpoint, Miller has spent significant time with Dahlin, more than any other partner, clocking 136:52 of ice time so far. Their xGF of -6.24-percent at a duo is rough. Their poor performance together is actually pretty surprising. On paper, their respective skill sets would seem to compliment each other nicely, but for some reason, they’re not clicking, and they’ve both produced better numbers away from the other.

We’ll see if Miller’s short stint as a healthy scratch will help get him going again. Last night’s debacle against the previously last-place Minnesota Wild (his first game back in the lineup), was not a good start. His relative Corsi at five-on-five was the worst mark among Sabres defensemen at -11.50-percent. Unfortunately, that performance came alongside Jokiharju who, as previously explained, has been arguably the team’s best defender this year.

Not Enough Sample

Brandon Montour

It’s tough to get a good feel for a guy who has only played seven games since returning to the lineup after sustaining a hand injury in training camp. From an eyeball test standpoint, Montour looks okay. He’s doing quite well as a zone-exit entity, and his offensive contributions on the back end have been more recognizable than most of his counterparts on the Buffalo blue line.

Defensively, he’s left a little bit to be desired, but that’s always been the case, even during his time with the Anaheim Ducks. For this reason, it was speculated by many (myself included) that he’d spend some time with McCabe, a player who would theoretically serve as a nice compliment to Montour, but seeing as he’s been attached to Ristolainen’s hip all season, we haven’t had a chance to see how they’d work out as a pair.

Now, understanding that sample size is important (and there isn’t necessarily enough here to make an accurate assessment), Montour has been the only Sabre defenseman who has actually posted positive Corsi metrics alongside Dahlin in 89:49 of ice time since his return. One reason why the sample size argument is maybe not as significant here is the fact that the two of them put together strong metrics last season after he was acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline.

In 120:21 to close out the 2018-19 campaign, they posted a Corsi-for of 57.38-percent and an xGF of 53.77 while taking heavy offensive zone-starts (66.7-percent) for Phil Housley. It will be interesting to see if Krueger lets the two of them spend more consistent time together as the season marches on, given their relatively strong track record together in limited time.