Mike Harrington: Hard-earned win is nice but soft 'D' remains major issue - The Buffalo News
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Mike Harrington: Hard-earned win is nice but soft 'D' remains major issue

It's pretty easy to bang on the Buffalo Sabres' defense corps. Their spotty play is a big reason this team entered Friday night last in the Eastern Conference, a patently unacceptable position.

But it's also easy to hand out some props to this group for the way it persevered during Friday's 3-2 overtime win over Detroit. When Jake McCabe went down in the first minute with what looked like a serious shoulder injury, the Sabres were left with five defensemen – and Justin Falk was the only left-handed guy.

Playing 64 1/2 minutes against the Red Wings and giving up only 34 shots on goal is a pretty good accomplishment. So is collecting 15 of the team's 22 blocks.

Coach Dan Bylsma was pretty proud of the nose-to-the-grindstone response he got from Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson,  Falk and Taylor Fedun. As well he should have been.

But from this view, even in the nice glow of a hard-earned win, the defense corps that General Manager Tim Murray presented to Bylsma hasn't been remotely good enough and that's the biggest red flag to this entire mess. Now it's even thinner without McCabe, clearly its No. 2 guy.

Ristolainen is the young stud and he played an incredible 35:24 Friday night – the most by any NHL player since Ottawa's Erik Karlsson went 36:34 on Dec. 20, 2015. He has three goals, a team-high 25 assists and a minus-2 rating on the season.

"He's so poised, makes good hard plays," said Falk, who got chances to slide next to the big Finn on the top pair. "He knows when to be simple and when to make the pass as well."

The rundown of the rest of the group is not as glossy:

  • Bogosian has no goals, three assists and a minus-9 rating in 25 games.
  • Franson has one goal, nine assists and an even rating in 42 games.
  • Falk (0-3-3/Even in 29 games) and Fedun (0-6-6/+3 in 17 games) have been a solid up-from-Rochester third pair but neither was signed over the summer with the idea of being NHL regulars.
  • Josh Gorges (0-1-1/-3 in 34 games) has played just once in the last nine games due to hip problems and Dmitry Kulikov (0-1-1/-10 in 20 games) has been nothing short of a disaster due to back issues that have sidelined him since Dec. 27 after he missed 13 games earlier in the season.

Now for the real bad news. The money. Talk about lack of bang for your buck.

Bogosian has a cap hit of just over $5.1 million for three more seasons. Gorges is signed through next year at a $3.9 million hit. The Sabres will be out of the deal for Franson ($3.325 million) after this year and same for Kulikov ($4.33 million).

Bogosian, a former No. 3 overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, has struggled to stay healthy since being part of the Evander Kane trade with Winnipeg. At his price, he simply has to be more physical and have far more puck awareness than he does. He took a lazy holding penalty in the first period and the puck was in the Buffalo net 12 seconds later on a power-play goal by Detroit's Frans Nielsen.

Still, Bogosian battled hard Friday and his 29:51 was his second-highest time-on-ice figure with the Sabres. Hard to knock a guy for putting that much into one game.

Franson dealt with injuries last year and has been better this season but certainly isn't the player he once was with Toronto. Gorges, a terrific statesman in the dressing room, can't be a top-pair guy anymore and Kulikov is looking like a complete washout that cost the Sabres analytics darling Mark Pysyk. The draft pick that was acquired was used to take promising Swedish forward Rasmus Asplund, who looked good in the World Juniors and had better become the top-tier NHL talent the Sabres think he can be.

Murray deserves criticism for not getting enough quality NHL blueliners on this club when it was planning a playoff run. That said, getting Falk and Fedun to deals under $700,000 in the NHL has certainly helped.

"We didn't expect this big of a role for this long of a time but you know they'll need guys to fill in," said Falk, a Calder Cup winner last year in Cleveland. "We've been hoping to make the best of it to contribute, get some good minutes."

Injuries are obviously going to be a quick talking point for the Sabres this year, but they also reveal a disturbing lack of organizational depth. The Sabres are dead last in the NHL in 5-on-5 play at home with just 27 goals in 22 home games this season. That's pathetic.

As a group, the Buffalo offense's struggles can get pointed to its defense. The puck doesn't get carried out of the zone cleanly enough and stretch passes often fly errantly. The Sabres were nailed for icing six times in the first period alone Friday.

"When we’re playing well our defense does a good job breaking the puck out, going back for pucks and moving the puck out of trouble," Bylsma said prior to the game. "The key to not playing in the 'D' zone is moving it out of there as quickly as possible, getting the puck stopped and out of there."

The Sabres miscalculated during training camp and kept Casey Nelson on the roster, when he should have been in Rochester, and sent Brendan Guhle back to junior. When Guhle came up on emergency recall in December, he easily fit in as a second-pair blueliner.

Guhle will certainly be here next year but prospects like Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald certainly look to be 2-3 years away. This club is going to keep wallowing in the low-rent district without a major overhaul. Trades of Nikita Zadorov, Brayden McNabb and Pysyk have realistically produced only one viable asset so far in Ryan O'Reilly.

The Sabres' top-six forward group is clearly close to being what it needs for a playoff run. But that's a sobering thought because the club makes you think of recent versions of teams in Colorado and Edmonton. Lots of talent up front and a porous back end.

Don't have to tell you how long it's been for Edmonton to become relevant, until Connor McDavid stayed healthy this year -- and the Oilers traded former No. 1 overall Taylor Hall to New Jersey for shutdown D-man Adam Larsson. The Avalanche are a complete mess, with a young forward core that will need to be broken up.

Murray has work to do after this season. High lottery choices were supposed to be a thing of the past but the Sabres might be heading there again.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

 

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