At the heart of Buffalo Sabres' talk over the last two months: How to turn the team back in the right direction?
The hot-and-cold first half has been exhaustively discussed. From the opening of the regular season until Thanksgiving, the Sabres accumulated more points in the standings than any other team in the league. And since then, the Sabres have reversed course, accumulating fewer points than any other team in the league. It’s been dizzying to say the least.
One of the areas that I’ve become increasingly curious is the power play. Despite the talent that would seemingly lend itself well to a productive unit on the man advantage, coach Phil Housley’s team hasn’t realized much success.
Under the same split of the first half of the season, the numbers are comparatively jarring: In the first two months of the year, the Sabres averaged 6.8 goals per 60 minutes, and since Thanksgiving, they are down to 4.8 goals per 60 minutes. The league average is around 7.2 goals per 60 minutes. Buffalo’s power play has been underwhelming all season, and notably so in the last two months.
The depth issues that unfavorably affect this team at 5-on-5 are just as impactful on the power play. If you look at how each regular Buffalo skater has performed relative to peers around the league and then relative to one another, it becomes obvious that if Buffalo’s PP1 doesn’t produce, the team doesn’t produce.
First, let’s look at the rate at which Buffalo’s skaters generate goals relative to league average. We know that the average NHL skater on the power play is averaging about seven goals per 60 minutes on the man advantage and expected goal rates (I’ll use Corsica as a quick reference tool here) are relatively similar. To that end, we can measure the deltas for every regular Sabres skater season to date. Here’s what that looks like, with the size of each bubble corresponding to the amount of ice time each player has seen up a man:
The Sabres have a core trio of skaters who provide power play production, and that includes Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin. It is almost perfectly collinear with the top-heavy issues the team experiences at 5-on-5, where goal scoring rates plummet as soon as those skaters leave the ice.
The issue for Buffalo is that their second power-play unit has really been blundered to death and there really haven’t been many success stories. Players such as Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville have probably been a bit unlucky, sure, but it is more than a bit concerning that those numbers haven’t fully regressed by this point of the season.
The larger issue is with the four skaters at the bottom of the graph – Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and Conor Sheary. For the most part, we are talking about guys with well more than a hundred minutes on the power play individually. Although their opportunity has been a bit neutered having played on the second unit for large segments of the season, the lack of production is a problem.
If I were to tell you that the average power play skater was on the ice for one more goal per 60 minutes than the likes of Reinhart and Okposo, and that the expected goal rates (to eliminate the effects of randomness) were very similar, how would you react? Because ultimately that’s what Buffalo is seeing these days.
We can punch these numbers out for a more direct head-to-head comparison, knowing that Buffalo’s operational norm is less than the league average. Here is how every Sabres skater compares to one another – directionally it’s still the same, but I think it speaks a little more clearly to the depth challenges in Buffalo:
Striking the same note can get a little tiring after a while, but the reality is Buffalo’s depth issues are fundamental to why this team is in the thick of a playoff race despite a 10-game win streak that should have solidified a playoff spot. Moreover, it does beg the question as to whether the Sabres should jump into the forward trade market come February. There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Sabres should punt on the season to preserve as many assets as possible for their true test year in 2019, but as of right now, they are a literal coin flip to earn a postseason bid.
If given those odds at the start of the season, would General Manager Jason Botterrill have signaled his front office into buy mode? I suspect that is the case. But for now, we have another month to see if the Sabres can skate themselves out of this funk.