A new mapping system of how NHL players are used may offer some insight as to why the Buffalo Sabres have struggled out of the gate.
Player Usage Charts, invented by Hockey Prospectus writer and Hockey Abstract founder Robert Vollman, track situations in which every player has been used based on their offensive and defensive zone starts and quality of competition faced. The charts, which are used by several NHL teams, also track how successful an individual has been in his role based on his puck possession. Red is negative possession, blue is positive and the bigger the bubble, the better or worse the possession statistic.
A close look at the Sabres' chart after 10 games raises questions about decisions made by head coach Lindy Ruff:
LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYER USAGE CHARTS INVENTOR ROBERT VOLLMAN HERE:
Why has Tyler Ennis been used differently than last season?
Ennis is starting 45.1 percent of the time in the offensive zone as opposed to 57.5 percent last season. During Ennis's best days, the final 10 games, he, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, were used almost exclusively as an offensive line. You might expect a natural decrease in O-zone starts from 57.5 percent simply based on receiving more ice time or based on the team struggling to get O-zone starts, but to put the 45.1 figure in perspective, Patrick Kaleta is getting a higher O-zone percentage this year and Paul Gaustad started in the offensive zone 44.4 percent in 2010-11.
Look into the number a little deeper and you'll find Ennis is only getting 3.2 O-zone starts per game and 3.9 defensive zone starts. Last year it was 4.0 O-zone per game and 2.9 D-zone. Over 48 games, that's a difference of 38 fewer offensively optimal opportunities for the team's most dynamic offensive centerman and 48 more difficult assignments.
We have often asked why Ennis looks different this year. Player usage may be a part of your answer.
Why is Jochen Hecht playing an offensive role?
The biggest concern from fans with the Sabres signing Jochen Hecht is that Lindy Ruff would use him too often and in the wrong role. So far, the detractors have this one right. Hecht has a higher Offensive Zone Start percentage than Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and the aforementioned Tyler Ennis.
Now, the difference percentage wise between Hecht and the others is marginal, and the total zone starts are fewer, but he wasn't brought to Buffalo to have a similar role to Pominville. He was re-signed to balance the roster defensively. He can't do that when he's starting half the time in the O-zone. And he has just two points in 10 games, so his offensive zone time is hard to justify.
Why are Drew Stafford, Jordan Leopold and Nathan Gerbe facing the hardest competition?
This may be a case of small sample size and minor differences making things look worse than they are, but the fact is, three players you would pick last to use against opponents' best players have been used most against them. In the past, Jason Pominville, Patrick Kaleta, Steve Ott and Jochen Hecht have been the forwards tagged with stopping the Phil Kessels and Alex Semins of the NHL. And on the defensive side, Christian Ehrhoff, who has been the runaway best defenseman in terms of possession, is being used against poor competition while the struggling Leopold is subjected to the best of the best. It might take pressure off Leopold and get his confidence up to ease the load.
Stafford ranked ninth amongst Sabres' forwards with at least 20 games last season in Quality of Competition faced. The year before, when he scored 30 goals, he was 10th on the team in QoC. It's quite possible part of his scoring slump is related to being up against really good players. You could make the same case for Gerbe, who ranked 12th in QoC faced in 2010-11 and scored 16 goals.
Maybe this will all even out over time. Or maybe the usage of certain players vs. tough competition has played a role in the Sabres being dead last in the NHL in goals allowed at 3.70 per game and held back Stafford.
Why is Matt Ellis playing an offensive role?
Just like it doesn't make sense to use an offensive talent like Ennis in defensive situations, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Matt Ellis to start 61.9 percent in the offensive zone. Last season, Ellis' O-zone start figure was 45.4. In 2010-11 when Ellis played 72 games it was 46.7 percent. Why would Ellis, a player with 16 goals in 287 career games, be given offensive zone time?
In fairness Ellis, has only been used in 21 total specialized situations. But that works out to around 100 during this 48-game season. And one of those situations was taking an O-zone faceoff with 0:48 in the third period in a tie game against Toronto.
It's not a gripe about Ellis's play, he's good defensively and shouldn't be used any other way. Plus, those are O-zone starts that could have gone to Hodgson, Ennis or Grigorenko.
What else can the chart tell us? What can Ruff learn?
Ruff has pretty much nailed it with his top line outside of giving them a little more offensive work. Pominville and Vanek are players that can be trusted in both ends and they seem to work well with Hodgson offensively. It might make sense to have another center with them on a defensive zone start, but overall it's almost impossible to complain about how he's used the top line.
It's obvious Ruff does not trust Mikhail Grigorenko in his own zone. He's using the rookie in the offensive zone more than he's used any player in the last five years. That will probably decrease as the season goes along, but there's a problem: Grigorenko hasn't been producing. If he's using up O-zone starts on the 18-year-old that means he isn't using them on Ennis or Cody Hodgson.
Ruff has tried to help Tyler Myers a little by putting him in offensive situations, however, he's used him against tougher competition than Ehrhoff. It's impossible to blame Ruff here because Myers should be the Sabres' go-to defenseman. This one's on the young D-man.
Marcus Foligno has been sheltered by Ruff. Even though his scoring hasn't been there, it seems to be working for Foligno in terms of puck possession. It's easy to forget how young he is because of his explosive start to his career, but it makes sense to ease him into his first full NHL season. You'd like to see Ennis and Stafford with similar O-zone starts, though.
Lindy Ruff has not and probably never will separate players based on their strengths as much as some other teams. He uses almost all of his forwards on both sides of the ice. This strategy has worked in the past for Ruff and has worked for teams like Detroit, who stack two-way players. There is no correlation between success and separating players into specified roles. However.....
When you have players with specific talents – rather than all-around – you need specified roles. The Penguins are on the other end of the spectrum from Ruff in terms of usage. They start Evgeni Malkin 72.2 percent in the offensive zone and Pascal Dupuis 36.8 percent. This is a change from two years ago when the highest Pen was near 58 percent and lowest 48 percent.
Ruff is stuck between a rock and a hard place with his centers. He has two offensive-minded top six centers, one 18-year-old, an aged defensive center, a winger who can take faceoffs and a grinder or two. He doesn't have a go-to, two-way center. It makes splitting up the zone starts more difficult when Ruff has to take his most talented players off the ice or split lines to have the right match ups.