Where The Buffalo Sabres Got It Wrong (And How They Can Fix It)

04/15/2024
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I stewed, angrily, for days before I started writing this article. To be frank, I’m surprised that I have any emotion left to give to the Buffalo Sabres. I lived through the Bills drought, but I don’t remember feeling as bad as this. Maybe it’s the volume of games that are played. Maybe it’s the fact that the football culture is just more conducive to bringing and keeping fans together when times are tough. Whatever the reasons are, it doesn’t matter. On Sunday, April 7th, the Sabres played an uninspiring game against the Detroit Red Wings for the second time in three weeks, losing 3-1. And with it, any semblance of hope left to make the playoffs was dashed. As such, the Mount Everest-sized boulder this fanbase has been chained to and forced to drag around for 12 years will remain shackled for at least one more.

But it didn’t need to be this way. Optimism about the team’s direction at the end of the 2022-23 campaign was at its highest. After missing the playoffs by a mere two points, it appeared as though the Sabres were on an upward trajectory. They were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. Rasmus Dahlin had blossomed into the superstar that the most respected NHL prognosticators had predicted he would become. And the team’s patience with Tage Thompson paid off, as he seemingly developed into an NHL first-line center overnight. There was much in place to build on, and any competent organization serious about winning should have been able to take the next step. Unfortunately, finding competence within the Sabres’ organization proved as challenging as scouring the desert for water.

What They Knew and What They Didn’t Do

An honest evaluation of the 2022-23 campaign would have included a number of areas to be considered and targeted for improvement. The first thing that should have been obvious was that a goal-scoring regression would occur. The Sabres were one of just six NHL teams whose goals scored above expected as measured by MoneyPuck.com was ten or greater at 5-on-5.  And they were one of just seven teams in the same category above six at 5-on-4. They also boasted the league’s fourth-highest shooting percentage on unblocked shots.

Some of this can be attributed to the talent level of the shooters on the team, and you can’t take that away from them. But the play style was also a large factor in their ability to produce scoring chances from dangerous places on the ice. Given that this play style resulted in the Sabres surrendering the sixth-highest expected goals against the previous season, the decision was made to adjust the system to be more defensively sound.

This decision drew criticism from pundits and fans alike as this season’s campaign wore on. Don Granato was asked directly about this change in media junkets. He reiterated that he believed the goal-scoring would come back. And to his credit, their cumulative expected goals at even strength on a per-game basis did tick up from 1.9 in October to 2.1 in January. But through the remaining stretch of the season, it remained on a flat, if not slightly downward trajectory.

Ultimately, per Money Puck’s model, the 23-24 Sabres have produced 20 fewer expected goals at 5-on-5 compared to the 22-23 squad. But this, combined with the significant drop in shooting percentage of unblocked shots and the collapse of the Power Play (more on that in a minute) led to a 23% drop in goal scoring through 80 games.

Based on what we knew at the end of last season, they should have been able to see this coming. But what does the inaction of the organization to meaningfully address scoring depth in the summer of 2023 signal about what Kevyn Adams and his staff thought about this team? Instead of trading draft picks and/or prospects to solidify the forward lineup, they handed out new deals to Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons, and even Tyson Jost, all of whom had a sub-50 % on-ice expected goals percentage at even strength.

Granted, those players weren’t all signed to be goal-scorers. And if the Sabres were going to shift to a more defensive-minded approach, perhaps they believed their numbers could improve. But why gamble on all three? And why was nothing else done to add goal-scoring to the roster? Whatever their belief was about where the team would be this year, there was no good reason why they shouldn’t have made a move for a higher caliber player – even if it was at the expense of draft picks or prospects in the system.

The second thing that should have been obvious to the Sabres is that their Special Teams needed to improve. In the 2022-23 season, the Power Play produced 11% fewer expected goals than the league average, and the penalty kill allowed 16% greater expected goals than the league average, according to HockeyViz.com’s numbers. This is where it seems as though this organization’s complacency really shows up. A professional hockey team would replace an assistant coach and bring in someone who knows how to elevate these units after a season like that. But rather than shake up any part of the organization, the Sabres elected to bring back their entire coaching staff with no changes at all. Status quo.

Instead, they went out and signed Erik Johnson, citing his penalty kill prowess as one of the main reasons they brought him into the fold. And while the Sabres’ penalty kill did improve, they still found themselves allowing 6% more expected goals against relative to the league average, and Johnson’s individual impact was below league average as well.

And the power play? Predictably, it got worse. They produced an astounding 17% fewer expected goals per 60 minutes than the league average power play, again according to HockeyViz.com. But it doesn’t take fancy stats and analytics to know that the Sabres power play has been terrible for two years. Even the most casual fans notice and comment on the lack of movement and shooting-lane-creating structure that even league-average power plays seem to be able to establish. If it weren’t for having one of the most prolific offensive defensemen in the entire league in Rasmus Dahlin walking the blue line with incredible poise, they would be far, far worse.

The third and final thing that should have been obvious was that the defense needed an upgrade. In the 2022-23 season, only Kale Clague and Dahlin had an on-ice expected goals percentage north of 50%. And as previously mentioned in this very article, the Sabres were the sixth-worst team in the league in expected goals surrendered at even strength.

To Adams’ credit, they tried to address this in their own way. In the early stages of the offseason, the Sabres wisely moved on from Ilya Lybushkin who was their second-to-last-ranked defenseman in quality share. In came Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson on free-agent deals.

Clifton as an idea was at least interesting. It’s one of the rare instances that the Sabres have brought in a player with a quality share north of 50% at 5-on-5 since Adams took over. However, he has failed to adapt to the way the Sabres play. As a whole, this has been a disaster of a signing. Clifton is ranked eighth among Sabre defensemen in quality share at 46%. He also has another two years left on his contract.

Johnson did not come in with impressive numbers at this stage of his career. But the Sabres likely didn’t sign him with the intention of playing him more than a bottom-pairing guy. But during his tenure as a Sabre, he put up numbers that more closely resembled a seventh or eighth defenseman on the depth chart. Yet he was curiously given opportunities to play ahead of other players who looked better.

In comes the discussion about Ryan Johnson. When he was given opportunities to crack the lineup, he played very well. In fact, Johnson was their second-ranked defenseman in on-ice expected goals percentage at 51.3%. He was one of just three defensemen on the roster above the 50% mark. And according to HockeyViz.com, the Sabres’ 5-on-5 defense as a whole allowed 12% fewer expected goals per 60 minutes than the average. But despite all of the information we have on this player supporting the idea that he should be playing regular minutes, he will finish the year with just over a third of the minutes that were given to Clifton, and 200 fewer minutes than Johnson has played at 5-on-5. Many nights he was relegated to the press box, and ultimately, Adams moved him down to Rochester.


The Trade Deadline

As the season marched on, the Sabres struggled to stay at a .500 pace. In a seemingly endless win one, lose one pattern, rumors began to swirl about the availability of Casey Mittelstadt. It was questionable as to whether or not the looming RFA was in the Sabres’ future plans. Tage Thompson and Dylan Cozens had signed lucrative long-term deals. The depth and quality of the organization’s prospect pool at forward was ranked among the NHL’s best. Mittelstadt made sense as a piece they could move for help along the blue line. 

However, in making the decision to move Mittelstadt, the Sabres would be losing their second-best center by the numbers. In terms of HockeyViz.com’s Synthetic Goals metric, which aims to consider a player’s entire contributions from their 5v5 play to their special teams abilities, Mittelstadt is ranked as a borderline first-line talent. At the time of the trade, Mittelstadt was the third-ranked Sabres forward in expected goals percentage. He was also one of just four forwards above the 50% threshold.

Smart teams knew that they would be acquiring a very good hockey player if they could get their hands on him, and the Sabres should have refused to make a trade for anything other than high-value draft picks or a defenseman with an established history of quality play. But they got neither when they acquired Bowen Byram from the Colorado Avalanche.

Byram as an idea was certainly interesting. A former fourth-overall pick of the Colorado Avalanche, he had the draft pedigree. And at the young age of 22, there is the possibility of growth and development. But the underlying numbers on Byram when observed through the lens of quality share are alarming. He actually had a lower expected goals percentage than Erik Johnson with the Avs in the 22-23 season and was their sixth-ranked defenseman overall in that category. On a team as stacked as Colorado was, playing behind talented players like Cale Makar and Devon Toews, he should have been able to flourish. Instead, he floundered.

Things haven’t gone well for Byram this season. In fact, in terms of synthetic goals, he’s having the worst year on record of his young career. This also makes him the lowest-ranked defenseman on the Sabres by a country mile in this metric. His on-ice results don’t even fall into third pairing territory.

Thank you HockeyViz.com

The overall impact of this trade could be seen on the team level, as well. After the trade deadline, the Sabres’ expected goal differential at 5-on-5 cratered. It ended up being one of their worst stretches of seven games at any point of the drought.

The early returns of this trade are an absolute disaster. With that said, Adams didn’t make this deal to get better in the short term. The goal is to find a player better than Mittelstadt to fill that role at center ice. And as far as Byram is concerned, things could certainly change. His raw skill flashes when you watch him play. But parting with a proven commodity at a high-value position in Mittelstadt for a question mark in Byram is something I simply just don’t agree with. I’m sure they felt that the depth of their prospect pool at forward allows them to take more risks. But I’m tired of gambles not paying off. They’re paid to get it right, so get it right.

It’s Time to Bid Farewell To Donny Meatballs

It’s interesting what your frame of reference will do to your perceptions. In the case of the Buffalo Sabres, we have seen a lot of bad hockey for a lot of years. So when Don Granato took over for Ralph Krueger and set the players free to take risks and play a fast-paced, offensive style of hockey, it was easy to feel like they finally had someone credible behind the bench. And relative to past performances, they did.

The 2022 through 2024 Sabres have been the most competitive hockey teams this city has watched since the drought began, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It’s like the Bills finishing 8-8 with Doug Marrone. When his opt-out clause was triggered, Bills fans were told they were crazy to want to move on from him. Pundits argued it was the best season they’ve had in years. I still wonder if Terry Pegula wanted to move on from Marrone back then. In a formal statement upon his departure, Pegula lamented Marrone’s decision to leave. Fortunately for the Bills and Terry, that decision was made for them.

I’ve cited quality share an awful lot in this article, and that is by design. There are many other metrics worth considering when attempting to make a more detailed analysis. But in the most simplistic terms, quality share is the end result of what everything else brings to the table. If you produce more high-value scoring chances than you give up, you’re going to win more games. And in 2.5 seasons under Don Granato, we have yet to see that happen.

But it goes beyond the poor quality share with Granato. He has shown an inability to coach up special teams. He was unwilling to move on from an assistant coach and bring someone else in who can. He’s shown puzzling player deployment and selection, such as his misuse of Ryan Johnson. He frequently displays hesitancy to pull the goaltender with sufficient time remaining to make a difference. All of these factors indicate that he’s probably in over his head.

Does Kevyn Adams agree? And even if he does, will he have the authority to fire his head coach whose newly signed contract kicks in next season? We’ll find out soon enough.

Deja Vu

The Sabres will find themselves in a similar position this offseason. They need help along the blue line. They need more goal-scoring. And the latter point is even more crucial now that Mittelstadt has been removed from the equation.

Adams has bet big on Dylan Cozens being the future No. 2 center of this hockey team. But for two years, Cozens has played more like a third-line center. Anything he does offensively is outweighed by poor play in his own end. This is another good reason to move on from Granato. Perhaps a different head coach can get him where they need him to be.

Regardless of what they do (or don’t do) at head coach, they absolutely must address the center position this offseason. But they’ll be tempted not to. With Matt Savoie and Jiri Kulich waiting in the wings, I expect Adams to do what he’s always done.  He will leave space for his young prospects to break into the lineup. He loves to bet on his guys, and let it ride.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems almost insane to think that they won’t make a change at head coach. Without a change there, what will be different about next year’s team? But there are a number of people who believe Granato’s job is safe.

Complacency is the straw that broke the camel’s back this season. All we can do as fans of this team is hope and pray we don’t wake up on Groundhog’s Day once again.

7 Comments

  1. jr

    what about the face off problem that nobody’s talking about? dead last in the league. are they going to address that?

    • GF

      Glad some one else noticed. They never mention it anywhere. It’s horrible.

      • Ron Barzinski

        If you really had the answers you’d be running an NHL team.

  2. Erik Vornoff

    I wonder about the longterm health of Samuelsson and Tage Thompson. These guys when right are key cogs. But they are brittle. There seems to be something quite wrong with Thompson in particular this year but the ailments, one after another (?) are unreported. Samuelsson plays maybe a quarter to a half a season. And Pegula/Adams just mandated another seven or eight years of each. Buffalo has the capital to get things done but absolutely no brains at the top.

  3. Kyle Gentner

    Great read! Time for some massive changes in this organization. Pegula seems like the kind of Owner to just leave things alone unfortunately…

  4. MS

    I’ve been a Sabres fan since the day the NHL announced they were expanding to Buffalo and Vancouver. Fifty-plus years and only two legitimate sniffs at the cup. The Granato era was so frustrating. Can’t say I’m sad he’s been kicked aside. Not sure of all the top-tier coaches who might be available but it might be a good fit to bring Ruff back (if he’d want it). He’s got proven experience developing young talent.

  5. Mark Zak

    one of the better articles I have read. I did not agree with trading Mittlestandt for a D man. I do not like the idea of Ruff coming back. Hasek made his record what it was. A new coach with a winning NHL resume is the right choice this time