Buffalo Sabres' fans have several months to think about what went wrong. Was it the injuries? Was it a combative relationship between players and coach? Was it lack of determination? Or the ever-talked-about “core?”
Often times, those aspects of failure are tough to put a finger on. The only ones who know the answers to those questions are behind closed doors. But that doesn't mean we can't search for answers within the resources we have. One of those untapped resources is advanced statistics. Yes, they exist in hockey, not just baseball.
This is part two of a series of articles about what the numbers suggest about the Sabres' season of failure. Read part one about Brad Boyes here. Read Part Two about Ville Leino here and Part three about Derek Roy here.
In part four, we focus on Luke Adam
The question: After such a hot start, why did Luke Adam's production fall off? Was he sent down too early? What is to come of him in the future?
The Majority Opinion: Adam played well to start the season because he was paired with Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, but he played so badly in his own zone he was dropped down which reduced his scoring and hurt his confidence. His future is up in the air...
What the stats say:
In the case of Adam, there's a couple different wants to look at his 2011-12 season. You can look at the entire picture a la what the stats say about his end-of-season totals, a sample of 52 games. Or, you can look at at Adam's year as a tale of two seasons. We'll do both.
You might say Adam's first "season" ended with his final goal on Dec. 17 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He would then go the next 20 without scoring a single point. But the beginning of the end started well before then. The beginning of the end for Luke Adam 2011-12 began Nov. 12, when Lindy Ruff broke up his line with Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek in a now-infamous game against Boston. During his time with the two Sabres' star forwards, Adam scored five goals and seven assists in 15 games. After being removed from that line, he scored only eight points in 37 games. The Sabres were also 10-5-0 while Adam was paired with No. 29 and 26.
Sticking with the comparison of Adam's first 15 games to his final 37, during the first group of games, Adam averaged 19.4 shifts per game, during the final 37 that number fell to 15.4. His high and low of total shifts went from between 24 and 15 in the first 15 games to 23 and seven in the second group - meaning his time on ice was fluctuating wildly after being bumped from the Pominville, Vanek line.
While only two of Adam's 12 points in his first 15 games came on the power play, his man-advantage time dried up as the season extended on. In fact, in one game in October against Carolina he played more than seven minutes PP time. But Adam finished the year averaging just over one and one-half minutes per game of power play time and scored only three points.
From these numbers, three things are clear: 1) Adam was very effective 5-on-5 while playing as the top line center with the team's two best players. 2) Removing him from the first line had a dramatic effect on his production 3) Adam was not put in a position to succeed after the first 15 games
Adam's ice time per 60 minutes - which was third lowest amongst Sabres with less than 50 games and nearly four minutes per 60 less than Pominville - insinuates a major part of his drop in production was simply because he was not on the ice. And when he was on the ice, he was, more often than not in his 52 games, playing with poor teammates. The only Sabres' forwards with lower Quality of Teammates numbers were Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kaleta, Cody McCormick and Matt Ellis. Outside of Vanek, basically the fourth liners.
And believe it or not, Adam still led the Sabres in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes.
At the end of the season, coach Lindy Ruff said the reason Adam was sent to the minor leagues was because of his poor defensive play. The statistics suggest that Ruff did everything he could to avoid putting him in the defensive zone, starting Adam 57.7 percent of the time, a team high.
While the eye test may say Adam was bad defensively, the statistics say he was just average. In terms of goals against when he was on the ice per 60 minutes, there were seven Sabres who allowed more. His on-ice shooting percentage (goalies' save percentage when he was on the ice) was .924 on 5-on-5 situations, which ranked eighth on the Sabres and ahead of Drew Stafford, Ville Leino, Vanek, Pominville and Cody Hodgson. One factor that might influence both of those numbers, however, is Adam's Quality of Competition statistic. According to BehindtheNet.ca, only Ellis and McCormick faced easier competition.
What does it all mean?
It still remains a mystery why Lindy Ruff decided on Nov. 12 to remove Adam from his line with Pominville and Vanek. He was producing and the team was winning. Adam's glaring flaws were his ineffectiveness on the power play and weak puck possession numbers, which may reflect his poor defensive play. But Ruff was using him correctly, starting him largely in the offensive zone, putting him in a position to do what he does best. Even if he was a liability in the D-zone, Adam was plus-1 in the first 15 games.
You can only wonder what would have been for Adam if he had never been moved off the line. The statistics suggest that, at his current rate, he would have exceeded 30 goals had he played 82 games and spent more time on ice. Instead, he finished the season in the minors.