The Buffalo Sabres are in serious trouble.
They've dropped to 3-5-1 in a 48 game season and the team – Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville not withstanding – has looked abysmal. Defensively, they are one of the worst in the NHL so far and their No.1 defenseman Tyler Myers has struggled. They have also lacked scoring outside of Vanek.
But of all the concerns to have about the Sabres – and there are MANY – fans should not be worried about the team ranking last in the NHL in faceoffs after eight games.
The Sabres are only winning 42.5 percent of their faceoffs. The team has also allowed three goals this season directly following a draw, including one on Sunday against the Florida Panthers.
When analyzing the Sabres' struggles, we need to consider what certain stats are really telling us about the team.
For example, Ryan Miller allowed four goals against the Boston Bruins and finished the night with a terrible Goals Against Average of 4.00. Was he terrible? No. He faced 42 shots and stopped 38, putting his save percentage at .904, which is slightly below league average. Which is closer to the truth about his game? Obviously the latter.
We need to look at which stats say the most about the club in order to spot the holes.
What does the league's worst save percentage really say about the Sabres? It tells us that their drawmen are allowing the other team to get the puck first around 6 of every 10 times. It says that when they are taking a faceoff in their own zone, it is slightly more likely the other team will get the puck first.
It doesn't say anything about how good the Sabres are defensively. It doesn't say anything about how many defensive zone starts they'll have – which a good team will have fewer. And it doesn't say anything about how many goals will ultimately be scored for and against or where the team will finish in the standings.
It simply says that approximately one time per game in the D-zone more than the league average, the other team will get the puck first. The Sabres have had 182 defensive zone faceoffs this season. They've lost 108. If they continue at that pace, they'll lose 57 more than an average team or just over one per game.
Is one faceoff loss per game in the defensive zone the difference between a win and a loss? You might respond, “it was on Sunday!” Which is true to some extent since the Panthers scored, but with a more defensively sound team, it won't have any long-term effect.
Let's look at the play. This screen capture shows three Sabres players in Mathias's shooting lane. The second capture shows the Sabres' players not tracking the puck and absolutely nobody heading toward the shooter. It also shows Ryan Miller being a tick late to move over. Miller himself said he didn't get a good “jump” on tracking the puck.
What can we conclude from this? The team's goalie admits he could have stopped it. There was a mistake in communication in checking the shooter and there were three potential candidates to block the shot.
If we're answering the question, “what's wrong with the Sabres?” with this play, you'd answer goaltending, communication and shot blocking, before you made your way to the faceoff. Why? Because no matter how good a team is at faceoffs, there will always be situations like this one, where the other team gets a shot off the draw.
In fact, Hockey Prospectus research showed that teams winning a defensive faceoff take more shots in the first 15 seconds. So if every team loses about the same amount of draws – 23 teams were within 48 and 52 percent last season including the Sabres – isn't it more logical to say that the concern should be how a team reacts defensively within those first 15 seconds?
Here's more proof:
There's no correlation between faceoff percentage and the things that cause losing. Two examples are puck possession and goal differential.
Take a look at some of the teams from 2011-12 whose possession statistics didn't come close to matching up with their faceoff percentage:
Faceoff % vs. Possession
Notice the league's No. 1 and No. 2 best possession teams – two top playoff seeds – were just average faceoff teams. Also notice the league's worst possession team and second worst overall record finished eighth in the circle.
FO% vs. Goal Differential
Note the league's worst team in differential ranks ninth in the circle and the Cup finalists Devils finished 29th in faceoffs, but ninth in differential. All of the Top 15 in differential ALL made the playoffs.
How about shots allowing shots? That's bad too.
Top 15 shots for: 11 made playoffs (Phx 0.1 out of top 15)
Top 15 shots vs.: 10 made playoffs (Was 0.1 out of top 15)
Is it caused by faceoff losses? No. Six of the 7 worst teams in shots against were above 50 percent in FO percentage.
Is it better to win a faceoff than lose? Absolutely. Would you rather have a group of centers who dominate the circle? Yes. But if the Sabres started winning faceoffs, it wouldn't come close to guarantee they'd get any better.
Right now the team is 26th in possession and 23rd in goal differential. Now if those numbers improved, it's a lock they will get better. Those will improve if their defense improves.
That's what the Sabres really need to worry about.