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Marcus Foligno and Flawed Expectations

In hockey, we judge players' success or failure by whether they meet the expectations of the front office, coaching staff, media and fans. We expect LeBron James to win the Championship and score 30 points per game. If he doesn't, he's failed, even though he scored more points than 99% of the NBA could. We expect a backup catcher to hit .240 and play good defense. When he does, we praise him for having played a significant role on the team.

The expectations are set arbitrarily by what we perceive a player should be able to achieve with his skills, past performance and situation. The front office and coaching staff does this, too.

And when a player falls short of those arbitrary expectations, we rarely say, “were our expectations flawed?” Until, of course, we're ripping into the player and team for falling short...then maybe there will be some acknowledgment that, say, Ryan Fitzpatrick will never be John Elway.

Fans and media refuse to admit they went too far in hyping a player and the front office and coaching staff point the finger at the player so as to dissolve themselves of blame for asking him to perform at a higher level than was possible. And round and round..

That brings us to Marcus Foligno.

There's little question Folgino fell short of the front office, coach, media and fan expectations. In 47 games, he scored 18 points. He wasn't as physical as they expected and too often tried to drive the puck to the net himself instead of simply getting it into the corners and working to get it back.

But the expectations for Foligno's 2013 season were bogus.

At the end of 2011-12, the young winger went on a tear when playing with Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis. He finished the year with 13 points in 14 games. His scoring total swayed media, fans, coaches and the front office into thinking he was ready to be a Top 6 forward in the NHL.

The problem? Fourteen games isn't just a small sample, it's a microscopic sample.

The 14 games were a blip on the radar, a tiny hot streak fueled by some luck and the drive to make a good first impression. They weren't a sustainable reality.

How should they have known that?

First, Foligno's shooting percentage in those 14 games was 26.1%. That's the equivalent to hitting .450 in baseball. Steven Stamkos, the league's best shooter and a 60-goal scorer shoots 17.2% for his career. Wayne Gretzky's career shooting percentage is 17.6% for his career.

But Marcus Foligno, a third-round draft pick was supposed to sustain a 26.1% shooting percentage?

In January, I wrote this on Foligno:

The scoring rate will be near impossible to repeat over an entire season. His shooting percentage was 26.1 percent, which is about 15 percent above what top-line wingers usually shoot. He was also sheltered last year in his span (understandably so) ranking 12th amongst forwards in Quality of Competition and 1st in Quality of Teammates. He'll face harder competition this year, no doubt. Foligno's numbers were in a small sample last year, but taking into account his skill set, Steve Ott-type scoring seems plausible.

Projection: 9 goals, 13 assists

It's about even more than the shooting percentage. He scored a total of 66 points in 93 AHL games. He scored 139 points in 245 games in juniors.

But he was supposed to score a point-per-game in the NHL?

The thing is, if you look at Marcus Foligno's season through the lens of what type of player he is and the role he's supposed to play, he actually had a very good season.

Folgino ranked No. 1 on the Sabres in Relative Corsi – a puck possession statistic that compares an individual's possession against his teammates.

- When he was on the ice, the Sabres allowed 25.0 shots on goal against per 60 minutes. When he was off the ice they allowed 31.1 shots per 60.

- When he was on the ice, the Sabres took 28.1 shots on goal, when he was off the ice they took 23.7 shots on goal.

- Only Steve Ott and Mike Weber had more hits

- His PDO was 980 – basically, he had some bad luck. PDO is on-ice shooting % vs. the opponents' goalie's on-ice save %. League average is 1000. The below average % suggests he may not have gotten the bounces he did in 2011-12.

Now, Foligno did have some advantages that should have helped him score more. His 56.1 offensive-zone start percentage, power play and low quality of competition should have given him a little more boost.

But we have to ask ourselves: What kind of player is Marcus Foligno? What role does he fit in best to provide value to the Buffalo Sabres? What kind of scoring production should we expect from him?

The answer is Steve Ott.

Instead of asking Marcus Foligno to be a reliable scorer, we should ask him to be Steve Ott – a high energy, defensive-minded, puck-possessing hitter who can score a little and drive opponents insane. Did he do that in 2013? Yes. As much as his ceiling suggests? No. But for a rookie season, to provide those things and some scoring was a success and should give the organization a positive feeling about where he'd headed.

Ron Rolston was correct to put Foligno on a lower line and cut his power play time down. That's where he belongs. That's where he can bring the most value to the Sabres. Not playing on a Top 6 line. Rolston knew Foligno from the AHL. He knew where he belonged better than Lindy Ruff, fans or media.

Next season our expectations of Marcus Folgino should be around 30-40 points and more consistent physical play and energy. We should expect him to be like Ott.

And we like Ott, don't we?