Time to Shuffle the Cards on Defense

The case for the Sabres to make some changes on the blueline

Recently, off the ice, the Buffalo Sabres took a big step forward in building for the future with the conclusion of the Jack Eichel saga. Unfortunately, on the ice, the team has taken a step backwards.

The over achieving Sabres are now 5-4-1 through 10 games, which is certainly a respectable haul of points for a team that was predicted to go 0-82. The more concerning part of their recent 3 game skid is not the losses, but rather the decline in the overall quality of their game. Buffalo’s relentless energy and pace, that was a cornerstone of their hot start, has all but disappeared.

For an example, look no further then the recent game against the Kraken where the Sabres appeared to be ‘out on their skates’ for the entire first period. So much so that the only player who showed up, goaltender Dustin Tokarski, had to take matters into his own hands after Kraken forwards continued to crash his net.

Perhaps the most glaring issue during the team’s downturn in play has been the play of star defensemen, Rasmus Dahlin.

An unfortunate visual summation of his season played out during the waning moments of the loss in Seattle. After a Kraken empty netter that made it 5-2, Dahlin, having just whiffed on a puck that ultimately slid into the open cage, angrily tried to slap the puck out of the net. He missed and went sprawling onto the ice.

So, with that, I think it’s time for Dahlin to sit one out.

It may seem drastic, but he is way too talented to be playing like this. His numbers tell some of story in that 5 assists on the season is not good enough from a player of his caliber and ice time. The eye test tells even more of the story as Dahlin’s offense has been littered with errant passes and awkward break outs. Unfortunately, his defense has been even worse.

Most fans are aware that Dahlin is a ‘live by the sword, die by the blade’ type of player, but his recent transgressions are costing the Sabres on the scoreboard. His defensive gap control and timing have been especially bad which has led to him getting burnt, badly, on a few occasions during one-on-one battles.

However, the lack of offensive output from the Sabres blueline is not just on Dahlin’s shoulders. While he is certainly supposed to be the offensive quarterback of this team, and is paid accordingly, no other Sabres defenseman is exactly piling up the points. In total, the Sabres D-men have combined for 1 goal on the season, which was Robert Hagg’s nine-iron, empty netter, against the Lightning.

So, allow me to slip on Donnie’s blue rimmed glasses for a minute and rework the Sabres’ blueline.

What I’ve admittedly never liked was the tandem of Dahlin and Will Butcher. Initially, they played well together, but I’ve never been able to shake the idea that they just don’t fit as a defense pair. Call me old school, but the notion of having an offensive minded defender paired with a defense first player has always made sense to me. At their best, both Butcher and Dahlin play an offensive game and therefore, in my opinion, are too similar for both players to get the most out of their respective abilities while paired with each other. Lest we forget that Butcher scored 44 points in 81 games his rookie season in New Jersey. We all know that Dahlin has never met a scoring chance he didn’t like, so why hinder either player’s offensive instincts by playing them together?

As for the other defense pairs, I still like the defensive prowess of the Robert Hagg and Mark Pysyk combo.  Both play a similar defensive-first style, which has worked well, with Pysyk being slightly more of a two-way defender in my opinion. But using my defense-offense recipe, I‘d like to see Dahlin eventually paired with Pysyk and Butcher partnered with Hagg.

These new combos would work to each player’s strength and, hopefully, unleash Butcher and Dahlin to do what they do best, drive the offense.

In particular, I like Pysyk paired with Dahlin for two reasons. First, Pysyk has 463 games of NHL experience. This is the type of experience I would like to see imparted on Dahlin who is still only 21 years old. Pysyk has the experience to get into Dahlin’s ear during the game, settle him down, and make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing to help the team win. Secondly, Pysyk has just enough offensive touch in his game to keep up with Dahlin, which I think is important to have in a partner for a player as dynamic as Rasmus. Pysyk makes a very nice first pass and is steady enough on the blue line to clean things up when a Dahlin gamble doesn’t pan out.

For many of the same reasons, I like pairing Butcher with Hagg. This partnership would allow Butcher to get creative and move the puck, while Hagg can stay back and manage their own zone. Hagg has played well thus far, keeping things simple, which should balance Butcher’s game so he can focus on offense rather than trying to constantly keep up with Dahlin’s wild and unpredictable style.

Another consideration for a roster change would be inserting speedster Christian Wolanin. A savvy DBTB contributor previously wrote an article on Wolanin when he was first acquired off the waiver wire, touting his skill set that could help the Sabres aside from just providing depth. Since the publishing of that clairvoyant piece, Wolanin hasn’t dressed for one game (ouch). So why not give him a shot? In the last 3 games, the Sabres back liners have let up 13 goals, not exactly a number that will win many games, so any form of lineup change should not be discounted.

Lastly, the pair of Jacob Bryson and Colin Miller have played well enough to stay together in my new line-up. They were the best blueline pair in Seattle and have shown flashes of chemistry that should continue. They are ultimately more of what I’m looking for in a defense paring with Bryson showing off a good motor and Miller staying back to provide a few nice hip checks per game.

This is not an indictment of Rasmus Dahlin, but rather an endorsement. You don’t have to be a scout to see how good he is, so it would behoove the Sabres to do everything they can to get him going. Scratching him would allow him to relax, step away from the pressure, and hit the reset button. Let him watch the game from the box and see it from a different angle.

Also, not to be forgotten, is that the Sabres have a very good defenseman in Henri Jokiharju coming back at some point, so the defense corps will be re-arranged anyway.

So with all that in mind, if I’m head coach Don Granato, why not take stock of your current hand, and perhaps try to play some new pairs? I would even look to draw Wolanin’s card from the deck and play it.