Last season, the Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs for the fourth time in six years. Any time an NHL team misses the post-season – in a league where teams make the playoffs simply for keeping the lights on in the arena – there are going to be a multitude of reasons for the club's failure. For the Sabres, you could point to a number of reasons for their 12th place finish including coaching, special teams, roster decisions and on and on.
But if you were to pinpoint one aspect of Buffalo's game that caused them to fall behind the elite teams, it was their inability to possess the puck.
A statistic called Fenwick Close, which uses close-game shot totals (on goal and missed) to judge teams' puck possession ranked the Sabres 30th in the NHL in possession. You might say that it isn't about the number of shots, but about the quality, but history might pump your breaks.
The 2013 Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks were second in the NHL in Fenwick Close, averaging 55.8% of the total shots in a given game. The Bruins were fourth. The Western Conference Finalist Red Wings were fifth. And when the L.A. Kings shocked the world as an eighth seed in 2012, they didn't shock the stat world, because they were fourth in Fenwick Close during the regular season.
It's common sense, really. The best teams control the game. And the Buffalo Sabres did not control the game last season.
But this year's a new year. There's a new coach and plenty of new faces on the opening night roster. There's cautious optimism about a young team and reason to think they could compete. But unless the Sabres improve their puck possession, they'll be making it five out of seven years without playoff hockey in Buffalo.
How can they do it?'
5) Improve zone exits
Puck possession begins with play in the defensive zone. Elite defenders have the ability to get the puck out from behind their own net up to streaking forwards or successfully carry it into and through the neutral zone. The Sabres struggled terribly to get the puck out of their own zone.
Roster changes on the blue line may give the Sabres a boost in getting pucks out of their own zone. Rookie defenseman Mark Pysyk excelled in Rochester in making quick decisions under pressure and moving the puck out of the Amerks' own zone. He showed his skill in Buffalo, in 19 NHL games, he had a Relative Corsi (Puck possession on ice vs. off ice) of +7.4, which was only behind Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Sulzer.
Sending Sulzer to Rochester may prove a bad move. Ehrhoff's chemistry with his fellow German is real. When the two were paired together, Ehrhoff had a 56.7% Corsi percentage (similar to Fenwick percentage, but includes blocked shots) – better than with any other player.
That said, Henrik Tallinder has been a solid possession player and the puck-moving rookie Rasmus Ristolianen are likely to get pucks out of the D-zone better than the aged Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr did last year.
4) Stay aggressive when ahead
If you've listened to WGR's Paul Hamilton any time over the last three or four years, you've heard him say that the Sabres play back on their heels when they have a lead. Turns out, there's statistical evidence that they do.
When the Sabres were up by one goal in 2013, they controlled on 35.9 percent of shots at or on goal. That was worst in the NHL. In fact, the Blackhawks were 20 percent (!) better at 55.9 percent. When they were u by two goals, they basically never had the puck. They were, yet again, last in the NHL at just 29.5 percent. Chicago? 55.0 percent. How can you hold onto a lead with the other team taking 70 percent of the shots? (Yet we blame Ryan Miller, but that's a discussion for another day)
Can it improve this year? This will depend on Ron Rolston and the team's leadership. Rolston can push his skill players to continue to carry the puck into the zone and look to make it a three goal lead instead of trying to protect a two goal lead. Also some new(ish) players like Kevin Porter, Brian Flynn and Zemgus Girgensons should add defensive skill and an attitude that could help the team play better when ahead.
3) Carry the puck in the offensive zone
If puck possession is the color black, zone entries and exits are the Miley Cyrus' haircut and twerk. Or something like that. They're in vogue in the hockey stat community, that's all. OK.
Anyway, one of the findings of zone entrance and exit studies is that carrying the puck in is much more effective that dumping it behind the opponents' net and chasing after it. It's kind of common sense, right? You're giving away possession of the puck like a punt and hoping to get it back.
This study by Broad Street Hockey demonstrates the effect in terms of possession. The study also indicates that teams dump the puck in the zone more often when they are leading. The Sabres could stop doing that and keep their foot on the pedal while up.
2) Find correct line combinations
This one goes along with the Ehrhoff/Sulzer bit. The website stats.hockeyanalysis.com has a breakdown of how players perform when paired with different teammates. For example, when Cody Hodgson was on the ice with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, he had a Corsi percentage of around 48%. When he was on the ice at the same time as Steve Ott, his Corsi percentage was 6 percent worse. With Nathan Gerbe it was 8 percent worse.
The challenge early in the season for Ron Rolston will be to find the line combos that are performing the best in terms of possession. One line to keep an eye on in terms of possession is the top line of Vanek-Hodgson-Stafford. Stafford's Corsi percentages were strong with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno in 2011-12 and 2013, but with Hodgson (in limited minutes) his percentages were 40.5 and 45.6.
1) Put players in a position to succeed
Lindy Ruff used players in every type of situation and often against similar competition. So he might use Cody Hodgson in the offensive zone against an opponent's fourth line, then start him in the defensive zone against the top line on the next shift. Some coaches have gone to using more offensively skilled players at a higher percentage in the offensive zone. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins used Evgeni Malkin, a one-dimensional scorer, in offensive zone faceoffs 63.6 percent of the time vs. 36.7 percent defensive zone.
The Sabres would be wise to do this. They have many one-dimensional players including Hodgson, Vanek, Ennis, Stafford and several defensively skilled players like Kevin Porter, Patrick Kaleta, Zemgus Girgensons and Brian Flynn. Ruff tried to force his one-dimensional players into two-way roles and it didn't work. Rolston has an opportunity to tweak (twerk?) the usage and improve the team's ability to get shots in the offensive zone and prevent them in the defensive zone.