They weren’t supposed to screw it up.
The Buffalo Sabres’ plan should have been simple: Tank, get a top three draft pick and start the rebuild around the league’s next superstar.
But five players screwed it up. It should have been a lock. They weren’t supposed to be this good.
You see, there was a flaw in the plan – something the Sabres, fans and media didn’t anticipate: The possibility that these players could actually be a better option than their predecessors.
But that’s exactly what’s happened and the Sabres are again caught in the middle. Their chances of making the post-season are still slim-to-zero, but their chances of getting the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft are dwindling with every win.
The success of these five players raises another question: Could the Sabres have been in the playoffs had these five been in the lineup for the entire season? The statistics point to yes…
The Rochester Amerks’ captian was not only a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League, but also the team’s best two-way player. Porter had played a defensive role in his previous experience with the Colorado Avalanche and was the standout top defensive center in Rochester. He has proven to be a huge upgrade in the third line center position as compared to Mikhail Grigorenko, who started the season in that spot. Grigorenko’s skill set didn’t mesh with the position and the Sabres already had two one-dimensional centers in Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson.
What the stats say…
The Sabres are among the worst teams in the NHL in shots against. When Porter is on the ice at 5-on-5, the team is averaging 2.8 shots against per 60 minutes fewer than when he is off the ice. In Even Strength goals against, Porter ranks 2nd on the Sabres, allowing under 1 goal per 60 minutes of ice time.
His Corsi Relative, a stat that measures puck possession compared to teammates, is a +1.2. He has also been used in a two-way role with a 50.2 Offensive Zone Start percentage.
He’s also added some offense with nine points in 27 games.
Flynn started out the season as a healthy scratch for the Rochester Amerks. He was an undrafted free agent and it seemed unlikely he'd even get top line minutes much less make an NHL debut. But the 24-year-old continued to prove himself in the minors as an offensive threat. When he was bumped up to Buffalo, however, it was unclear whether he could play a lower-line role. Not only has he proven he could play that role on a line with Porter and Steve Ott, but he's shown a consistency in effort and mental toughness that the Sabres have been lacking.
What the stats say...
For forwards with over 200 minutes played, Flynn is No. 1 on the team in On-Ice Shots Against, allowing 26.6 per 60 minutes at Even Strength. He's the only player ahead of Kevin Porter in this category. Flynn is also No. 1 in Goals Against Per 60 Minutes at even strength with 0.9 per 60 (again, slightly ahead of Porter). Compare that to a Goals For Per 60 at EV of 2.94 and you have a vast improvement in the Sabres' defensive game.
Flynn has seen some benefits that Porter has not – which makes sense because of Porter's position as a center and previous experience. His offensive zone start percentage is 54.2 and Quality of Competition faced is some of the easiest on the team. So his defensive numbers are helped by advantageous situations, but he has still been extremely effective in the role.
Pardy was the odd man out in training camp on a stacked defense. He impressed management but there were just too many on the back end. However, the decision to keep T.J. Brennan rather than Pardy was a costly one. Pardy dominated the AHL while Brennan struggled mightily in limited duty. That combined with an aging Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold and struggling Tyler Myers made for an abysmal blue line. Since the former Flames and Stars' Dman has come up to Buffalo, they've seen an improvement.
What the stats say...
While it's a small sample of games, Pardy's Goals Against Per 60 Minutes at Even Strength is No. 1 on the Sabres. There's been some good luck involved – when he's on the ice, the Sabres' goalies have an unsustainable .968 save percentage. But when he's on the ice, opponents aren't getting a high number of shots either. In fact, only Christian Ehrhoff is allowing fewer Even Strength Shots per 60 Minutes. That's a pretty impressive figure considering Pardy's been used in very difficult situations in terms of Quality of Competition and Zone Starts with a 43.7 O-Zone start percentage.
The former Sabres' first round pick hit some bumps in the road this season, once being benched for an Amerks game at First Niagara Center. However, his consistency and incredible intelligence on the ice have become especially apparent around the time the lockout was coming to an end. The former first-round pick has brought a calmness to the blueline that was certainly not there with Myers or Brennan in the lineup. It's harder to criticize the Sabres for not having him up because he's a first-year pro, but it's obvious he was better than previous options.
What the stats say...
The stats say it's amazing how much Ron Rolston trusts his rookie in difficult situations. While he hasn't always faced the hardest competition, Pysyk's Offensive Zone Start percentage is the second lowest on the team at 41.7 and lowest amongst defenseman. That means he's often on the ice for faceoffs taken in the Sabres' own zone. While he doesn't have the highest Corsi rating or shots against figure on the team, if you look deeper his underlying numbers are solid. Corsi Relative – a stat that gauges a player's performance against the rest of his teammates, only ranks behind Ehrhoff and is equal with Pardy. Not bad. Unless you want the No. 1 pick, that is...
The Sabres' young netminder started off the season so poorly, you would have thought playing him more would push the organization closer to the front of the draft. But, it so turns out that Enroth is a pretty solid netminder. Over 50 career games he has a .928 Even Strength Save Percentage (League average is .919). Even Strength Save Percentage is a better indicator of a goalie's actual performance because PK save percentage depends more on luck and teammates and sees wild fluctuations even amongst the league's best goalies.
What the stats say...
Enroth had an .860 save percentage in three games under Lindy Ruff. Since Ron Rolston took over, he's only allowed 10 goals in seven games and has a save percentage of .954. There's no question that Enroth's play won't continue to be that good because nobody's is, but it's played a major role in the Sabres staying alive in the playoff race and thus falling back from the top of the draft.
The Sabres' failed tank job is a double-edged sword. You can look at it as another lost season. Another Heroic Run to Ninth. And while it's true that most of the teams with the top-end talent got that talent from the clubs who were able to ascertain the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick in the draft, there's value in finding out which players should be on the team going forward.
The Sabres discovered Kevin Porter can be a reliable two-way defensive center who can be used in difficult and late-game situations. He's mentally and physically tough and has brought leadership to the team. Flynn proved he can play in the NHL and has the makeup that winning teams possess. Pysyk is a flat-out star in the making and doesn't have the makeup issues Tyler Myers has. He's very bright and driven. Pardy may have earned himself a job here or elsewhere next season and Enroth has given the Sabres some confidence he could play 25-30 games next year or take over the No. 1 goalie spot.
So it's not the desired result, but maybe not the worst. Winning games at the end shouldn't be the biggest regret. That should be the Sabres asking themselves how they let Pardy, Pysyk, Porter, Flynn and Enroth go underutilized and let the playoffs slip away again.
All stats via Behindthenet.ca and Stats.Hockeyanalysis.com