One of the biggest criticisms of Lindy Ruff was that he struggled to figure out the right roles for the players on his roster. Maybe he'd lost the room, maybe not. We'll probably never know from what went on behind closed doors. But from what we could quantify, Ruff was attempting to use many of his one-dimensional players in two-way roles. This led to poor defensive players being exposed by high amounts of defensive zone time. In the same vein, offensive players were limited by their lack of offensive zone time.
How much was intangibles and how much was qualfitiable? It's hard to seperate the two, but the Sabres' roster failed to perform up to potential under Ruff outside of the Sabres' top line of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson.
Rolston took over an under-performing roster that was projected by Hockey Prospectus as somewhere in between a 6 and 8 seed – far from a bottom feeder.
After losing his first two games, Rolston has gained seven of a possible eight points in his last four including the team's best tape-to-tape performance on Sunday against the New York Rangers.
Despite the improvements the defensive struggles have not greatly improved. The Sabres have blown three third period leads and allowed 33.6 shots per game – nearly identical to their figure under Ruff.
Effort, poise and execution is improved and confidence is up after a few wins, but how has Rolston done from a statistical standpoint at using his players?
Offensive Zone Starts
Cody Hodgson is dead last in the NHL amongst players with more than 200 minutes in goals against while on ice per 20 minutes at even strength at1.665 and sixth worst in shots against while on the ice at 12.0 per 20.
Yet under Rolston – albeit in a small sample size – data collected by WGR by analyzing NHL.com's official Play-by-Play shows Hodgson has just a 39.0 Offensive Zone Start percentage in the six games since Ruff was fired. Under Ruff, his O-zone start percentage was 52.1.
To demonstrate how poor Hodgson's defense has been, New Jersey's Travis Zajac has been on the ice for 0.217 goals against and Jonathan Toews 0.232. And in terms of shots, David Backes is allowing 5.9 shots per 20 minutes while on the ice – less than half of Hodgson. (For examples of Hodgson's D-zone struggles, see 1:16 and 3:20)
None of this is by any means to suggest Hodgson is a bad player or shouldn't be on the ice, rather that his slowly developing defensive skills may be costing his team goals.
Why are offensive zone starts important?
An NHLnumbers.com study found that a positive offensive zone start differential of +100 over defensive zone starts resulted in an average of 3.3 points per season. That's the average skater. For an extremely talented offensive player it can be much more. Cam Charron wrote:
“In 2011-12, Daniel Sedin had a differential of +423 per 82 games, in about 876 zone-start-affected minutes. For every extra 100 zone starts, the above says he would gain 3.3 points, so our results suggest he gained about 14 extra points over the whole season from zone starts alone.”
The Canucks are most well known for understanding this effect. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis went so far as to admit the Canucks used Hodgson in the offensive zone 83.3 percent of the time during January of last season to bump up his offensive statistics to make him more attractive to deadline buyers.
Simply put: Talented players who receive more offensive zone starts than defensive will put up better scoring numbers. Many teams have caught on including the Pittsburgh Penguins, who use Evgeni Malkin in the O-zone 67.1 percent of the time. St. Louis's Alexander Steen has an O-zone start percentage of 67.5 and Rangers scorer Marian Gaborik is posting a 67.3 percent.
Sabres O-Zone Start chart
|Name||Total Zone Starts||O-zone Start %||Adjusted O-Zone %|
While O-zone starts can be dished out to get the most scoring out of their one-dimensional players, spreading them around can be a delicate balance for coaches. Rolston has used some O-zone starts to protect his rookies from more difficult situations. As you'll see, Marcus Foligno and Mikhail Grigorenko have the highest figures outside of John Scott's two O-zone starts.
Rolston has to juggle the players he'd like in the offensive zone with the players he needs to keep out of the defensive zone. But he's fighting an uphill battle in part because the Sabres' roster lacks two-way forwards – and for that matter, defensively talented players. Ott, Hecht, Kaleta and Pominville are the only players with a track record of defensive usage.
The Sabres' coach does not have an extremely talented two-way player like Zajac, who is only receiving 48.9 percent O-zone and still keeping pucks away from his net. So Rolston's been making due with using his top line in all the toughest situations.
The problem? It takes away offensive opportunities from his best scorers Hodgson, Vanek and Pominville and puts second-year Hodgson in situations that he's struggled with.
While again it is still an extremely small sample, you can see a clear pattern of Rolston using his top line to play in the defensive zone more often than the offensive. Even when adjusted to 50 percent from the Sabres' 45.7 percent team O-zone start percentage, Hodgson, Vanek and Pominville are still seeing many more D-zone starts than they even saw with Lindy Ruff in charge. Ruff used all three around 50 percent.
You can see by the chart who Rolston does not trust in the defensive zone: Grigorenko, Kaleta, Hecht and Foligno. Two of which are proven defensive players. While it certainly isn't as easy as it sounds, it may pay off in the long run to use Kaleta and Hecht in difficult defensive situations more often than Hodgson – who, again, is more or less the statistically worst defensive forward in the NHL this season.
The Sabres' power play has scored just three times in 59 opportunities. Player usage has clearly been an issue under the interim head coach.
Why? Hodgson ranks fifth in power play ice time despite having the highest scoring rate per 60 minutes on the Sabres last season with 5.52 points per 60. By comparison, Tyler Ennis, who ranks second in ice time, scored 2.01 points per 60. Hodgson also dominated the AHL under Rolston, leading the Amerks' top five power play.
Stafford's 5-on-4 scoring rate also outranked Ennis last season with a 2.37. During his 31-goal season in 2010-11, the winger topped the Sabres with a elite 6.74 points per 60. Statistically, Stafford has shown the ability to be not only a good power play player, but a great one. He certainly should be getting more ice time than Ennis and Steve Ott – whose career high in power play points is 12. Stafford has seen seasons of 17 and 19.
Rolston suggested he will consider shaking the power play rotations from how Ruff had them. Don't be surprised if you see a boost if Hodgson and Stafford see more time. And if top draft pick Grigorenko is given more chances.
The Sabres have allowed six power play goals in six games under Rolston so far. The best team in the NHL has only allowed seven goals in 19 games. But the root of the penalty kill problem does not appear to be deeply related to player usage. Since Rolston took over, the only improvement in terms of TOI is possibly seeing long-time Sabres PK'er Jochen Hecht seeing more ice time than Hodgson and Stafford.
Schedule Advantage and Going Forward
Rolston's first six games have been against easier competition than Ruff did in the 16 games before his firing. WGR's research found the combined goal differential of the Sabres' first 16 opponents was +2.5, which ranked as the fourth hardest schedule in the NHL. At the time of Ruff's dismissal, Rolston's first six opponents had an average -2.8 goal differential. By traditional methods, this is easy to see as well. Only two of the six are currently in the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings.
There is also law of averages coming into play. PDO, a statistic that demonstrates how much good or bad luck a team has had in terms of shooting percentage and the performance of goaltenders against them showed the Sabres to be well below average under Ruff and, unsurprisingly, coming back to life in the past several games. Under Ruff, 10 players on the Sabres have below average “luck” by the PDO measure. Some, such as Nathan Gerbe, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno were well underneath the average.
What does it all mean?
Your eyes tell you Rolston has had an impact on some of the intangibles involved with winning hockey games. The Sabres did not panic after losing leads in the third period. Several important players have seemed more confident and overall execution at 5-on-5 has improved. His decisions to bring up Adam Pardy and Kevin Porter are also paying dividends on the defensive side of the ice, it appears. But by statistical measures, there are still improvements that need to be made. The stats say Rolston should work to find more ways to get Hodgson and Vanek in the offensive zone to maximize their production. It also appears he should give Hodgson and Stafford more power play time and Ennis and Ott less.
Overall, a 3-2-1 start is as good of a start as anyone could have hoped for. The ship is headed in the right direction and the Sabres have a chance to reach their original projection finishing spot. However, improvements in the roster in terms of two-way forwards and more focused player usage could improve the chances of that actually happening.