Over the course of the summer of 2017, Phil Housley used phrases like “high tempo,” “activated defense,” and “aggressive” when describing the way he’d like the Sabres to play. This is what those who watch the team expected heading into the season, yet were left watching a slow, un-inspiring disaster on ice with little-to-no offense from the back-end.
The Sabres finished dead last in the NHL in points by defenseman which is definitely something you wouldn’t have expected with the way Housley wanted the team to play – yet when you look at who was getting as many minutes as they were, it’s not a surprise the team struggled to play an activated style.
The Sabres ice time distribution on defense in 2017-18 was:
- Rasmus Ristolainen – 1934:27 total ice time
- Marco Scandella – 1911:59 total ice time
- Jake McCabe – 1033:33 total ice time
- Nathan Beaulieu – 940:53 total ice time
- Justin Falk – 740:04 total ice time
- Victor Antipin – 718:03 total ice time
- Casey Nelson – 694:52 total ice time
- Josh Gorges – 507:58 total ice time
- Zach Bogosian – 344:49 total ice time
- Brendan Guhle – 325:54 total ice time
- Matt Tennyson – 269:35 total ice time
Looking at how this defense crop ranked in xGF%*, it further demonstrates this group’s lack of offensive ability 5v5. (It’s also important to account for each player’s TOI and quality of competition they would face when on the ice.)
- Bogosian – 50.05%
- Gorges – 48.38%
- Guhle – 47.65%
- Fedun – 47.31%
- Ristolainen – 45.52%
- Scandella – 45.35%
- McCabe – 44.51%
- Beaulieu – 44.28%
- Nelson – 43.68%
- Falk – 43.61%
- Antipin – 43.56%
- Tennyson – 40.36%
*xGF = Expected Goals For Percentage; The percentage of all expected goals that are scored by a team (xGF/(xGF + xGA))
stats via corsicahockey.com
Going from the defense that Phil Housley coached in 2016-17 that featured the likes of P.K. Subban, Matias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis to the tire fire he was stuck with in Buffalo last season – it’s a massive drop-off
Now, looking ahead to 2018-19 – the Sabres defense core should look a lot different.
The defense prior to any off-season trades looks something like this:
- Rasmus Dahlin
- Rasmus Ristolainen
- Brendan Guhle
- Marco Scandella
- Lawrence Pilut
- Jake McCabe
- Casey Nelson
- Zach Bogosian
Although it’s still undetermined what a player like Lawrence Pilut will do in the NHL this season or what kind of jump guys like Guhle and Nelson will have from the year before, the Sabres will still ice a much more active group on the back-end.
- We all know what Dahlin can do by now
- Ristolainen has solid offensive ability which could use some improvement 5v5 but should come with some of the additions to the team and overall team improvement
- Brendan Guhle is never shy to jump in the rush and contribute as one of the best skaters on any NHL blue line
- Marco Scandella will be relied on more for defense than offense but is a good skater and does a good job of reading when to jump into the rush and get pucks to the net
- Lawrence Pilut is a great skater and was the top defenseman in Sweden this past year because of his offensive prowess
- McCabe is also like Scandella, he’s defensive first but has solid skating ability and can contribute offensively when needed
- Casey Nelson showed nice progress as a guy who can play a simple game but push the puck up ice
- Zach Bogosian needs to stay healthy but can absolutely wheel and produces a lot of shots when he’s playing his game and free-wheeling.
If the Sabres enter the 2018-19 season with this D-core they won’t be perfect, but they’re all more than capable players to execute the way Phil Housley wants to play rather than the likes of Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, etc.
The Sabres will need a lot more offense from their defense in the upcoming seasons to come – although they’re still not the Predators’ core Housley was blessed with in Smashville, it’s a good step in the direction to having a modern style active defense and a group capable of playing an up-tempo game with an activated blue line. The Sabres will also have to improve their overall team speed with some faster additions on offense.