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.
In the first five parts of our series, we have focused on individual players, but for part six, due to the off-season truly beginning with the draft, we look at the makeup of the current club and what the stats suggest about how the Sabres should proceed.
The question: What can the Sabres change – if anything – to be a Stanley Cup contender?
The majority opinion: Trading Derek Roy is right at the top of the list. The team needs more toughness and another scorer. All trades should be open season, especially ones involving Roy, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, Jordan Leopold or Ville Leino. The free agents, Jochen Hecht, Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta, can all be let go. Don't move any of the young pieces.
What the Stats Say:
Before we dive into addressing the questions in the “majority opinion,” let's take a look at some of the facts about the NHL:
The NHL's Power Play Opportunities per game were their lowest since 1978
The top 10 teams in the NHL in 5-on-5 For vs. Against Ratio all went to the playoffs
The NHL had its highest league save percentage at .914
The team that won the Stanley Cup was 29th in scoring, but 4th in Puck Possession
The Top 10 Puck Possession teams all made the playoffs
Now some facts about the Sabres:
Buffalo ranked 12th in For vs. Against Ratio
Buffalo ranked 23rd in Puck Possession
Both Sabres' goaltenders finished the season above league average save percentage
Buffalo ranked 10th in winning percentage when leading after 2 periods
Buffalo ranked 19th in penalty kill
Buffalo ranked 26th in shots against
Buffalo ranked 22nd in total power plays
With these facts, we can determine the Sabres are weak in several areas:
Giving up shots
Now, a look at the make up of the team that IS under contract and their roles (not what they 'should be' but what they are):
Pominville – Top 6 scoring wing, power play scorer, PK'er
Vanek – Top 6 scoring wing, power play scorer
Roy – Top 6 center, power play quarterback
Stafford – Top 6 wing, power play scorer
Ville Leino – Top 6/third scoring line wing, power play set up man
Cody Hodgson – Top 6 center
Nathan Gerbe – Third line winger, penalty killer
Cody McCormick – Fourth line center
Matt Ellis – Fourth line center
Marcus Foligno – Unknown, possibly Top 6, physical forward
Corey Tropp – Fourth line winger
Tyler Myers – Top 4 defenseman, PP, PK
Christian Ehrhoff – Top 4, PP
Robyn Regehr – Top 4, PK
Jordan Leopold – Top 4, PP, PK
Andrej Sekera – Third pair
Mike Weber – Third pair
Alex Sulzer – Seventh D-man
Brayden McNabb – Unknown
Start with the forwards:
The Sabres have no shortage of proven talent up front, but much of their “proving” happened when the NHL was calling more penalties. Not only did the league not call penalties in 2011-12, but the Sabres were at the bottom of the league in drawing them.
They need an improvement in players who specialize in puck possession at Even Strength. Believe it or not, Ville Leino led the Sabres in Corsi, a statistic that measures a players' success or failure to possess the puck. Leino's numbers weren't that good, it was more that the other Sabres' puck possession numbers were bad. Derek Roy was the team's leader in puck possession at center, next best? Matt Ellis. Sure Ellis faced lesser competition than Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam, but the fact he had better puck possession numbers than those three should tell you something.
The Sabres lack a two-way center who can control the neutral zone. Right now, they have three centers who specialize in the offensive zone. The problem is, Lindy Ruff can't start all three in the offensive zone all the time. Hodgson and Ennis are both young and have the potential to grow as defensive players, but neither projects as the next Anze Kopitar.
The “lock-down” role is also pretty wide open. If the Sabres choose not to re-sign Patrick Kaleta, they will be losing not only their best defensive winger, but also the only player on the team who drew more than one penalty per game last season. The team is top-heavy with scorers, but lacks role players and defensive specialists, especially since dealing away Paul Gaustad. Someone needs to take defensive zone face-offs and currently, the Sabres don't have anyone they can rely on to get to puck safely to the neutral zone.
Sometimes the sum of the parts adds up to more than the whole. That's the case with the Sabres right now. They have mounds of offensive talent but few players with good size and puck-possession abilities. The current makeup also does not fit Ruff's style of having his centers and wings be asked to play both in the offensive and defensive end. One player who lacks defensive ability – say, Drew Stafford just as an example – isn't going to ruin a line with two other players who are solid both ways. However, you are asking for trouble pairing two or three players together who aren't as good. We saw that too often in 11-12. Ruff's “system” is oft-criticized, but in reality, his is quite common. But those who see success are the coaches with a lineup that fits their style (see: Phoenix, Detroit, Philadelphia etc.)
There's an odd-man out here, if you're in a hurry. Brayden McNabb excited all of us with his skill, but at the moment, what's wrong with starting him in the AHL? Jordan Leopold is in the final year of his contract and unless you are working under the assumption that nobody will get hurt in 2012-13, you'd be foolish to leave yourself in a position to rely on Sulzer or a rookie for a long period of time. Letting McNabb be the backup option for next year sounds like a pretty good proposition. Remember, he was born in 1991. There's plenty of time to let him develop into a star.
As for the rest of the makeup, the mix of skills is very solid. Last season Robyn Regehr was asked far too often to face the league's best (and fastest) forwards. But if he's back into his lock-down role with fewer minutes, the defense looks like it should be one of the NHL's best with Myers/Ehrhoff being the No. 1 pairing then Regehr/Leopold or Sekera and Weber (or McNabb) and Leopold. There are lots of options here. Depending on how ready McNabb is, he could even play on the second pair with Leopold or Sekera.
Of course the question arises: “What if Myers and Ehrhoff go down again?”
Then, you are in trouble. But what team wouldn't be when their No.1 and No. 2 go down? What if a bus hit you tomorrow? It happens, but it's not likely, so you look both ways, but you'll still leave the house. Leaving the house is like having McNabb and Sulzer.
Don't touch it. This is an excellent defense – one of the league's best. It has a nice mix of offensive, defensive and two-way D-men, power play point men and lock-down penalty killers. The success or failure of the Sabres' defense depends on health and whether Tyler Myers can play consistently at the Norris Trophy level we know he's capable of. The rest should take care of itself.
There's nothing to be done.
If some team wants to trade Bobby Ryan for Ryan Miller, by all means, but since that's pretty unlikely, appreciate what you have. Miller has been an above average goalie in all but one season during his career. He was asked to deal with a high shot total, poor puck possession, an insane rash of injuries and a concussion last season and still came out ahead of the league. That's darn good. And, let's be honest, in today's .914-avg-save-percentage world, nobody's taking that contract.
If anything, trade Jhonas Enroth. He's a starting caliber goaltender (.917 save percentage compared to .914 league average) who doesn't see nearly enough action to match his skill set. If Columbus or Edmonton comes calling, pull the trigger. Miller is OK with playing 70 games. Any old free agent goalie can provide average netminding for 12 games. And...if Miller gets hurt? See: Bus, crossing street.
Re-sign Patrick Kaleta. His penalty killing, ability to draw penalties and shut-down capabilities are hard to replace.
Let Brad Boyes go, consider keeping Jochen Hecht if healthy. He is a two-way center and led the Sabres in Puck Possession in 2010-11.
Move one of the one-way centers or move Ennis back to wing and move one winger and bring in a two-way center. The way Ennis played at the end of last season suggests he should be the team's No. 1 center, but if that's the case, the Sabres should consider moving one of their other centers.
Keep the defense and goaltending as is. Only possible move could be moving Weber or Enroth
The Sabres have impressive depth in the organization with Luke Adam in the AHL as well as T.J. Brennan. They have plenty of room to revamp this roster into a puck possession team that fits Lindy Ruff's system.
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr