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How much better will the Sabres be in 2014-15?

On July 1, the Buffalo Sabres may have made things a little complicated.

General manager Tim Murray signed good players on Day 1 of free agency, inking Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Andrej Meszaros and Cody McCormick. The moves improved the roster and the locker room.

Normally, it would be exciting to add a 30-goal scorer, a former Canadiens captain, a solid defenseman and some toughness. But this year, it is harder to say “hooray” over adding good players.  

Why? Just Google Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – the two players expected to go No. 1 and 2 overall in next year’s draft. The words, “generational player” and “better than Crosby” come up.

And the Sabres were in the driver’s seat to land one or the other, projecting as the runaway worst team in the NHL for next season.
The question is: After signing these players, are they still there?

To answer, we have to first look at how bad they were last year.
  • Buffalo’s 52 standings points were 14 less than the next worst team
  • They posted 14 regulation or overtime wins, seven behind the next team
  • The Sabres potted 39 fewer goals than the next worst scoring team in the NHL
  • At even strength, they were out-scored 60 to 117
  • 116 players scored more points than the Sabres’ points leader Cody Hodgson
  • Buffalo was the NHL’s worst team in Corsi %
  • The Sabres were out-shot by 422
  • They were 19th in Even Strength Save %
  • The Sabres had the 29th ranked power play and 20th penalty kill
Those figures are mind-blowingly bad. The season included the trade of one of the NHL’s best goalies in Ryan Miller, trades of scorers Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson and the firing of a coach and GM.

The Sabres also gave big roles to players who did not belong in the NHL, largely because they had no choice. We don’t need to name them, but we know who they are – and many of them are gone now.

They also played young players who were not close to being ready such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov etc.
Much of that is changed.

There is a coach who is going nowhere, GM who is going nowhere, veteran players who are competent and young players who will start in Rochester or juniors if they are not ready.

So how many goals and wins is all this worth?

Let’s assume that the fill-in guys like Jamie McBain, Matt D’Agostini, Zenon Kenopka, John Scott, Ville Leino, Henrik Tallinder were replacement level. They were worth zero goals above a replacement player. Meaning: The Sabres could plug in an AHL player instead of those guys and get the same production.
How much above replacement level are the new guys?

There is a stat for this called Goals Versus Threshold, which weighs how much better a player is than a replacement level forward, defenseman or goalie.
Here are the GVT’s of the Sabres’ adds”

Matt Moulson: 11.5
Brian Gionta: 8.0
Josh Gorges: 5.2
Cody McCormick: -0.2

Here are some of their significant losses:

Ryan Miller: 15.6
Christian Ehrhoff: 3.5
Steve Ott: -1.2
Now, Miller will not be worth 15.6 goals against over Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. Their combined GVT from last season was 5.4. So you could conservatively estimate Miller was worth about 10 goals more than Enroth and Neuvirth if they perform at last season’s rate.
There are three other players who could significantly impact Buffalo’s goals for and against: Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk.

Hockey analytics pioneer Gabe Desjardins developed a statistical model for projecting players who go from juniors to the NHL.


Plugged into the formula, Sam Reinhart came out with 15 goals, 28 assists. Take out a replacement player and add Reinhart in – assuming he is not a defensive force – and he will be worth another handful of goals, say, somewhere between three and seven.

Ristolainen and Pysyk could make things very complicated. There is no reliable way to project how many goals they will be worth, but each is a highly-rated, mature prospect who grew significantly last year in the minors. They could be huge difference makers over the likes of Jamie McBain.

There are a few other factors:

The East is weaker than the West.

Calgary did not get significantly better July 1, maybe even got worse.

There could still be trades. Tyler Myers? Drew Stafford? Chris Stewart?


How does it all shake out?

It is pretty clear the Sabres will be better. Whether they end up with the highest percentage in the lottery to land McDavid may come down to decision by Murray and goaltending.

Will Murray put Pysyk, Ristolainen and Reinhart in the NHL? Will he move assets at the trade deadline and call up replacement-level players? Will Jhonas Enroth take the next step and become a quality No. 1? Could Neuvirth steal the job and put up the type of season he was always thought capable of?

These things will not make the difference between making the playoffs or not. They are still short of being a contender. But putting top prospects in the NHL over Zenon Kenopka types could easily put Buffalo over Calgary or whoever else is at the bottom of the heap.

So we will see if Murray is trying to rig the deck or create a “winning culture.” The smart thing to do is to make the moves to assure they will take the generational player. To have one more rough season and then get moving on a turnaround.

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