By midseason, it had become a reflex action. A Buffalo Sabres player would get open for a scoring chance, and he'd pass up the shot. Instinctively, I'd look at Phil Housley.
The coach would lift his hands in disbelief, turn his back to the play and take a second to gather himself. He'd then say something to the players on the bench.
Almost from the moment Housley returned to Buffalo last spring, he preached a "shot mentality." During the coach's final three seasons as an assistant in Nashville, the Predators ranked fifth in the NHL in shots per game. Housley wanted to bring that type of offense to Buffalo.
Instead, the Sabres ranked 21st in shots per game (31.2) and last in goals (2.41). At the other end, they gave up the ninth-most shots (32.7) and the third-most goals (3.39).
A closer, detailed look shows they got better as the season went along. The Sabres began taking a higher percentage of shots from the scoring areas than opponents. They started connecting more.
It wasn't enough to stop them from finishing last overall, but it should provide Housley with a glimmer of hope that his shot-mentality mantra began to sink in.
Shots from the scoring area – defined as the box inside the faceoff dots from the goal line to the top of the circles – are highly sought. Although Buffalo passed up its share, it held its own compared to the opponents.
Using HockeyStats.ca, The Buffalo News analyzed 76 of the Sabres' 82 games (six were unavailable) for shot attempts by both teams, shot attempts from the scoring area, goals scored and goals scored from the scoring area.
Here are some key numbers:
• The Sabres took 32.1 percent of their shots from the scoring area. The opponents took 31.9 percent.
• The Sabres scored on 10.5 percent of their shots from the scoring area. The opponents scored on 13.6 percent.
• The Sabres scored 77.5 percent of their goals from the scoring area. The opponents scored 74.4 percent.
Here are a few takeaways from those stats:
• The Sabres need better snipers and more traffic in front.
Buffalo's overall shooting percentage this season was 7.7 percent. Of the 763 seasons put together by NHL teams since 1990, that ranks 745th.
The fact the Sabres shot only 10.5 percent from close range is troubling. It implies players can't find the net (think of all the shots fired into the goalies' chest) or goalies got good looks at the chances because no one went to the crease.
There was some good news in the numbers as Buffalo steadily improved throughout the season. The Sabres scored on 9.3 percent of their scoring chances in October and November. It went to 10.3 percent in December and January, 11.5 percent in February and March, and 13.2 percent for the four games in April.
• The Sabres need better defense near the net and goaltenders who can stop close-range chances.
Despite outshooting the Sabres by a modest 1,394-1,339 in the scoring area, opponents outscored them by a whopping 189-141. The opponents' shooting percentage was much higher because guys were left open on the doorstep and goalies let in shots that others stopped.
The bad news was Buffalo got worse. Opponents scored on 12.5 percent of their scoring chances in October and November, 12.2 percent in December and January, 14.4 percent in February and March, and 22.5 percent in April.
"We can talk about attacking the game," Housley said. "We can talk about pace and playing fast. But I think the biggest denominator for me is our checking detail and keeping the puck out of our net. That's going to give you a chance to win every night, and you can see it.
"It's very evident to me that our checking detail has to get better. I think the players in there realize that, being able to listen and be coachable in that respect. That's what I think is going to be a big difference for us next year."
• The Sabres need defensemen who can score and get shots to the net.
Buffalo scored just 41 goals from outside the faceoff dots and above the faceoff circles. The opponents scored 65.
The Sabres didn't get their first goal from a defenseman until Jake McCabe found the net Dec. 5. Rasmus Ristolainen led the blue-liners with just six goals. Sabres defensemen scored 19 times. Philadelphia's Ivan Provorov, Calgary's Dougie Hamilton and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman scored 17 by themselves.
Fans are excited for top-pick Rasmus Dahlin, and they should be. The Sabres need him. One player, though, won't cover all the flaws.
Unrestricted free agents with career shooting percentages above 10 percent include forwards John Tavares (12.9 percent), James van Riemsdyk (11.5 percent), Michael Grabner (13.0 percent) and James Neal (12.1 percent). When General Manager Jason Botterill makes trades, it wouldn't be a surprise to see accurate shooters arrive.
The Sabres are hoping Linus Ullmark and whoever else heads to the crease can shore up the goaltending and make key saves. Robin Lehner is a restricted free agent, and Chad Johnson is unrestricted.
"When we did get good goaltending, we didn't get enough goal support," Housley said. "Obviously, we probably needed a save here or there at critical times in the game. That's fairly obvious, but I don't think you can put blame on our goaltenders overall."
The Sabres need to keep honing their shot mentality. It will make Housley's life a lot better.
"There's a game plan put in place, and I think the coaches were patient with us for sure this year," right wing Kyle Okposo said. "I think some simplification would be good for our team. Just a simple message just to say, 'I want you guys to go work. Don't worry so much about the X's and O's, and just go out there and work.'"
BY THE NUMBERS
Overall (76 games as information for six was unavailable: Oct. 9 versus New Jersey, Nov. 2 versus Arizona, Dec. 10 versus St. Louis, Feb. 11 versus Colorado, Feb. 22 versus Detroit and Feb. 24 versus Washington)
Shot attempts: Opponents 4,371, Sabres 4,177
Scoring chances: Opponents 1,394, Sabres 1,339
Shot attempts that were scoring chances: Sabres 32.1 percent, Opponents 31.9 percent
Goals: Opponents 254, Sabres 182
Goals from scoring chances: Opponents 189, Sabres 141
Goals from outside scoring area: Opponents 65, Sabres 41
Percentage of goals that came from scoring chances: Sabres 77.5 percent, Opponents 74.4 percent
Shooting percentage from scoring area: Opponents 13.6 percent, Sabres 10.5 percent
October and November (23 games)
Shot attempts: Opponents 1,274, Sabres 1,251
Scoring chances: Opponents 423, Sabres 410
Shot attempts that were scoring chances: Sabres 32.7 percent, Opponents 33.2 percent
Goals: Opponents 75, Sabres 48
Goals from scoring chances: Opponents 53, Sabres 38
Percentage of goals that came from scoring chances: Sabres 79.2 percent, Opponents 70.7 percent
Shooting percentage from scoring area: Opponents 12.5 percent, Sabres 9.3 percent
December and January (24 games)
Shot attempts: Opponents 1,437, Sabres 1,313
Scoring chances: Opponents 449, Sabres 428
Shot attempts that were scoring chances: Sabres 32.6 percent, Opponents 31.2 percent
Goals: Opponents 78, Sabres 59
Goals from scoring chances: Opponents 55, Sabres 44
Percentage of goals that came from scoring chances: Sabres 74.6 percent, Opponents 70.5 percent
Shooting percentage from scoring area: Opponents 12.2 percent, Sabres 10.3 percent
February and March (25 games)
Shot attempts: Opponents 1,456, Sabres 1,373
Scoring chances: Opponents 451, Sabres 433
Shot attempts that were scoring chances: Sabres 31.5 percent, Opponents 31.0 percent
Goals: Opponents 81, Sabres 63
Goals from scoring chances: Opponents 65, Sabres 50
Percentage of goals that came from scoring chances: Sabres 79.4 percent, Opponents 80.2 percent
Shooting percentage from scoring area: Opponents 14.4 percent, Sabres 11.5 percent
April (4 games)
Shot attempts: Sabres 240, Opponents 204
Scoring chances: Opponents 71, Sabres 68
Shot attempts that were scoring chances: Sabres 28.3 percent, Opponents 34.8 percent
Goals: Opponents 20, Sabres 12
Goals from scoring chances: Opponents 16, Sabres 9
Percentage of goals that came from scoring chances: Sabres 75 percent, Opponents 80 percent
Shooting percentage from scoring area: Opponents 22.5 percent, Sabres 13.2 percent