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 five 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. Part three about Derek Roy here and Part four about Luke Adam here.
In part five, we focus on Drew Stafford.
The question: Was Drew Stafford's first season under a new contract a successful one? Why did he score 11 fewer goals than 2010-11? Did the Sabres make the right move in re-signing him?
The majority opinion: Stafford's season was disappointing. He didn't score the 30 goals we expected and doesn't play the physical game a player his size should. But he did have great chemistry with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno and it's probably a good thing the Sabres didn't trade him at the deadline.
What the Stats Say:
Before we get to what the stats say about Drew Stafford's 2011-12 season, we must first look at what said about his standout 2010-11 season:
When Stafford scored 31 goals, his shooting percentage was 17.3 percent. That was about four percent above his career shooting percentage and nearly double the league average. Of those 31 goals, 12 were scored in four games and 11 were on the power play, a career high.
Simply put: He was an obvious candidate for regression.
And regress he did...but only in goal scoring. But if you look at the whole story, Drew Stafford actually had a solid 2011-12.
First, the obvious: his point total. Stafford totaled only two fewer points (50) than in his breakout year last season (52). Of course, his 52 points came in 18 fewer games, so his points per game was lower. Look a little deeper, though and you will find his 5-on-5 production was exactly the same. In terms of points per 60 minutes, in 10-11, he scored 2.20 PP/60, in 2011-12, that number was 2.16.
Why is that important? Partly because power play production amongst the entire team dropped significantly. And consider that Stafford can't score on the power play if the team doesn't get power plays. He spent 2.74/60 minutes on the ice in 5-on-4 situations last season, whereas only 2.12 this year. Also with more emphasis in the NHL on 5-on-5, it was more valuable to the Sabres to have him perform well at even strength than on the power play.
Just take a look at the teams with great special teams... there is little correlation between the teams that have been successful on PP and PK and winning. Even strength is a different story. Of the top 15 teams in the NHL in terms of Goals For vs. Against at Even Strength, only two missed the playoffs (one was Buffalo at 12th, the other Winnipeg at 15th).
His continued success at 5-on-5 also suggests that re-signing him to a long-term deal will work out well for the Sabres. You see, he could still have a productive year even when his luck on the power play was down. In a wild swing from 2010-11, his shooting percentage was down to only 8.9 in 2011-12. That number insists he will likely score at a higher rate on the power play next season and see a boost in shooting percentage...and of course, score more.
There's some other good news, too.
Stafford was being used the right way by coach Lindy Ruff. His player usage numbers such as Quality of Teammates, Quality of Competition and Offensive Zone Starts indicate that Ruff was using him with the best teammates of anyone on the Sabres against the other team's weaker lines and starting Stafford in the offensive zone the second most on the team. Ruff essentially put a scorer with 30-plus goal potential in a position to score goals.
Ruff also increased Stafford's 5-on-5 ice time per 60 minutes from last season. Another correct move considering his 5-on-5 production capabilities and the fact that he ranked second on the Sabres in 5-on-5 scoring only to Jason Pominville.
How about on the defensive side?
Well, Stafford's on-ice save percentage was lower than last season, but still at the team's average at .923 at 5-on-5. His puck possession numbers were solid, ranking among the tops on the team. And oddly enough, he was largely criticized for lack of physical play and willingness to “sacrifice for the team,” but his hit and blocked shot numbers were both career highs. In fact, he nearly doubled the amount of hits from another other season in his career.
Another interesting note about 5-on-5, Stafford has never in his career been a minus player. He was plus-5 last season. You may not love plus/minus as a stat, but when a player is consistently plus over six years, it certainly tells you something.
Now to what you've certainly been wondering: How much better was he while playing with Ennis and Foligno?
Ruff put Ennis, Stafford and Foligno together for the first time against the Colorado Avalanche on March 14th. After that game, Stafford scored 15 points in 12 games. Amazingly, he only scored two of those points on 5-on-5. So simply math will tell you the rest of the year he scored only 35 points in 68 games. His shooting percentage during those games, though, was not outrageous. He scored seven goals on 45 shots or 15.5 percent. The assists (eight in 12 games) are much more likely to fade.
Stafford played equally good hockey to 2010-11 on 5-on-5. He struggled on the power play – as did the entire team. Stafford played more physical and average defensively. And when he was on a line with Foligno and Ennis, he was very effective, but had assist numbers that are unsustainable. He was used correctly by his coach and should, going forward with Foligno and Ennis, be given opportunities to start even more often in the offensive zone and face worse competition whenever possible.
And on the whole, much of the criticism for Drew Stafford, including calls for him to be traded, was undeserved. Even though his numbers were not good, his shooting percentage at the time should have been a clear indicator that he would bounce back, say like when a .300 career hitter is batting .200 in June.
The Sabres made the right move in retaining him after last season. He will never be an elite scorer or two-way player, but he proved in 2011-12 that he can continue to have 5-on-5 success and has found excellent chemistry with Ennis and Foligno. His overall scoring next season will largely depend on whether those two regress and whether he finds his power play scoring touch again.
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr