There are plenty of team-building techniques out there. NHL clubs have gone curling, trained with military members, shot paintballs and rode zip lines.
Few things measure up to having someone’s back on the ice, especially for a young team trying to build something.
With the playoffs out for this season, the Sabres are searching for smaller goals that will help them next year. One is sticking up for each other, and Zach Bogosian has been Exhibit A. The defenseman looked like a linebacker last week while dropping Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf for a hit to the head of Sam Reinhart. The next night, Bogosian chased down Toronto’s Zach Hyman after he boarded Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe.
Bogosian has been the most noticeable, but Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson and Robin Lehner are among the others who have jumped into scrums during the last week.
“Your expectation is to win a Stanley Cup, to get in the playoffs, to do damage there,” Bogosian said. “But when you’re not exactly reaching those goals, there’s other goals you can reach internally in the room. It’s trusting each other, playing the right way.
“You fall back on playing for the guy next to you, sticking up for each other. Those are the little things that maybe as a fan it’s exciting to see, but for us you know Robin has your back, you know Marcus has your back. Those are the little things that go into a big team-building aspect.
“You can do all the team-building exercises in the world, but when you see that that’s how you get closer and closer as a team. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
As Bogosian thought of the recent moments, a tinge of sadness arrived.
“We have a great group of guys,” Bogosian said, “but if we don’t win and we don’t have success, that great group of guys isn’t going to stay together.”
Changes are certainly coming this summer for Buffalo, which is 24th in the NHL despite a 3-1-1 run heading into Saturday’s home game against Winnipeg. Bogosian has proved to be one of the guys who should stick around.
In the last 15 games, Bogosian has recorded five goals, 11 points and a plus-5 rating. He’s boosted his season numbers to six goals, 20 points and minus-15.
“I’ve been feeling confident the last month or so,” Bogosian said. “After the All-Star break, I came back with some rest, fresh mindset and just try to help the team in any way possible. I like where my game’s going. I’ve just got to keep it up.”
Bogosian was an offensive threat during the first two seasons of his NHL career, recording 19 goals with Atlanta. His aggressiveness has put him back on the scoresheet. It’s a big difference from the first half of the season, which included missing the opening 17 games with a lower-body injury.
“Early on there was more caution in his game, caution with his injury, played a more conservative game,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s at his best when he’s aggressive, playing with an edge, playing with that abandon both defensively and offensively.
“He’s one of our better-skating players on our team, and I think he’s showing that now a little more with how he’s playing.”
Bogosian has been quick to join the rush. His last two goals, against Montreal and Ottawa, came when he pinched in from the point and shot from close range.
“I’ve done a lot better job of moving my feet the last little bit, just trying to use my skating to my advantage,” he said. “As a defenseman, you try to defend well and do all that, but if you can jump up in the play and make plays or score goals, that’s a positive. That’s the way I like to play, and it’s a good mindset to have to try and attack with four rather than have our three forwards do all the work.”
The productive play has earned the 25-year-old a bump in ice time. He’s alternated with Rasmus Ristolainen in being Buffalo’s minute-hogging defenseman during the last 15 games, with Ristolainen leading eight times and Bogosian seven.
Bogosian is averaging 22:34 per night but has topped 24 minutes a half-dozen times this month, including 27:38 against Minnesota.
“I feel I’m a better player at 25 than maybe 18 or 19,” he said. “You’re always in the groove. You’re jumping over the boards. If you make a mistake you’re not thinking about it for a couple of shifts. You’re focused on what’s in front of you and just try to play the right way.”
Plus/minus ratio, which has lost its luster during the analytics area, can still provide a decent gauge of two-way abilities. For example, Foligno leads the Sabres at plus-4, and he clearly has improved his defensive work as a member of the shutdown line alongside Larsson and Brian Gionta.
It’s the ugly numbers at the bottom of Buffalo’s list where plus/minus shows flaws.
The five players with the worst plus/minus are also the five the Sabres rely upon most: Ristolainen (minus-19), Ryan O’Reilly (minus-16), Jack Eichel (minus-15), Bogosian (minus-15) and Evander Kane (minus-13). Being on the ice for empty-net goals has hurt Buffalo’s big five. Here are their plus/minus ratios with the goalie pulled, according to War-On-Ice.com:
• Ristolainen: minus-8.
• Eichel: minus-7.
• O’Reilly: minus-6.
• Bogosian: minus-5.
• Kane: minus-4.
Take those away, and the numbers are at least respectable given the players’ matchups.
“There’s certainly aspects of the plus/minus that I don’t like,” Bylsma said. “When you look at the number of goals you have given up when you’re six-on-five and you look at the minus of O’Reilly and Ristolainen, it’s reflective there in their stats. The numbers are not good at minus-15 or minus-14, but when there’s six or seven empty-net goals it reflects in their number.”