Year In Review: 2010-11 Defense

The Buffalo Sabres are storming into the playoffs with a ridiculous 27-11-6 record since Jan 1, complete with a 4 game winning streak and a 6 game point streak to cap off the season. It’s a feel-good attitude around Buffalo, and I’ve chosen to grade an odd and quirky bunch for the season’s-end report card: the defense.

I’ve written a couple articles already about how the defense is so dynamically different from last year’s, how the identity of the blue line went out the door with Tallinder and Lydman. For much of the 2010-11 season, it seemed like the defenders were trying to find their stride, many were trying to redefine their role, and at times there were some rough patches. If you take a look at the Goals Against Average compared to last year, it has jumped from 2.45 to 2.78. They’ve let in 27 more goals this year, and that can account for a few of those games that caused them to stumble in the beginning. Some of that is because of an injured and possibly distracted Ryan Miller, but I believe it took the defense time to re-adjust.

Here’s the trick, though. They did. I do award points for overcoming a bad start.
After a hideous 15-19-3 start the D found their footing, new leaders were made, and they went to push to the post-season. Let’s take a look at the individuals:

TYLER MYERS – Of course I’m going to start with him. Last year’s prodigy and Calder Trophy winner, Myers has been seen as a godsend and a hope for Sabres fans. We finally have an All-Star defenseman who looks like he could be a monster…we’ve had finesse and we’ve had players that can hit, but we haven’t had a 6’ 8” giant who can move like this kid can. It’s oft said that “where Myers go, so the Sabres go.” That couldn’t ring true any more. Without last year’s defense parter, Tyler struggled mightily the first part of the year. It wasn’t until he relaxed, until he was allowed to play his own game, that he came into his own.
Through December, Myers was -8 with 14 points. To be fair, the majority of that stumbling came in the first month of the season. Since the new year Myers is +8 with 23 points. While the second half numbers might not be elite material, he played through a very rough patch and toward the end of the year has increased his hitting, his blocked shots (he’s got 10 of those in April alone), and his overall confidence.
GRADE A rough start, but he’s overcome it and excelled. Since he started doing well the team has done well, and if he can maintain pace this team will follow. B+

ANDREJ SEKERA – My problem with Sekera for the last couple of years is that people talked a lot about him, but he didn’t deliver. It only infuriated me more last year during the Olympics because I saw how good he could play and all I could think was, “Why don’t you do that for the Sabres!?”
This year started like the others. Sekera was a minus for the first part of the season and aside from a couple of assists he didn’t have much of anything to show for his ice time. He was a big non-factor. Something clicked right around Pegula Day, though. I know sometimes in my life I won’t understand something, won’t be able to grasp what I’m doing wrong, until it inexplicably “clicks” and all the sudden I am able to do what is needed. I think that’s what happened to Andrej. After a very quiet January and Februrary, where he didn’t mess up a lot but didn’t do a lot of positive things, he exploded in March. From Feb 26 through the end of the season Sekera was a +13 with 17 points including a 5 game streak where he got 2 points a game. I never thought I’d see his name on my fantasy team, but you’d better believe that he was there.
True, Andrej cooled off a bit by the end. Nevertheless, his surge came at just the right time when the Sabres were really pushing hard to make the post-season. While I crave stability and dependability from defensemen, he definitely did deliver some electricity and excitement. It shows that he has some amazing potential, and hopefully that confidence will grow and he will be able to spread out that great play over a greater stretch next year.

JORDAN LEOPOLD – Leopold is currently a -11 on the stats sheet. While that is awful to see, it is mostly concentrated in a five game streak in December when the Sabres 4 out of a possible 10 points (he went -10 in that time). While that’s not an excuse, if you discount those games you can see a very different story.
I was one of the people who was excited to hear them sign Leopold. I figured he would be a fitting replacement for Tallinder, being a mobile and dynamic defenseman. He’d had some injury issues in Pittsburgh and Florida, and he’d been moved around since 2008, so I thought he looked like a veteran leader waiting to happen and a great signing for 3 years. Well, he’s been injured with a broken hand since March 26 and he’s still 8th on the team in points scored, tied with Tim Connolly for 7th in goals  and leads the defense with 13. I’d say that’s some dynamic play. In fact, he is a big part of the reason why the defense has a total of 39 goals this season (for reference, the President’s Trophy team of 2006-07 only had 28 goals from the defense…the All-Star Brian Campbell only had 6).
So while Leopold’s defensive play has been lackluster at times, you can’t argue with offensive output that dwarfs some of the wingers.

STEVE MONTADOR – I’m going to say right now that Montador is my favorite defensive player on this team. He’s the complete opposite of players that I don’t like – he doesn’t squander his talent, he busts his butt, and he will fight to defend his team. All the complaints about the Sabres from the last couple years, that they’re soft or that they won’t stand up for each other, are offset by Monty’s attitude. Yes, he blows a tire and falls down at bad times (about once per year he costs us an overtime game because he needs his skates sharpened). That’s fine. He gets up and tries again.
He’s having a career-best year of +16 with 27 points, as well as 86 hits and 138 blocked shots. While Montador isn’t my first choice to go win a fight against Milan Lucic or Colton Orr, he’ll go in and start firing away anyway.

MIKE WEBER – Aside from looking like Richard Kind’s thinner brother, he’s got a mean streak. Weber leads the team in hits at 158…that’s 30 more than Paul Gaustad and 126 more than Pat Kaleta, despite playing only 58 games (Kaleta played 51, so I’d expect that number to be a little closer). He’s third on the team with 99 blocked shots and second in plus/minus with a +13. Most people haven’t even noticed any of this because he’s done it quietly. You don’t hear his name called too often, and that’s just how I want a defenseman to play. He’s calm, responsible, and can deliver a body check. That’s something this team has been missing since losing Jay McKee.

CHRIS BUTLER – Ever since Sekera’s late-season explosion and Derek Roy’s quad injury, I’ve needed a new whipping boy on this team. It’s not that I dislike Chris Butler, but he’s got some work to do to prove that he’s better than a #7 defender. On one hand he’s a +8 and he’s only got 26 penalty minutes. Something doesn’t seem right, though.
Most of Butler’s shaky play has been intangible, and that’s a big reason why he’s found himself benched so often by Lindy Ruff. Weber, Sekera, and Myers have all stepped up and filled the void left by the departure of Tallinder, Lydman, and Rivet. Butler has yet to do so, and it makes him look like one of the juniors. That’s actually not very fair to Marc Andre-Gragnani.
Butler’s late-season surge has been nice to see, though. Through April he’s had his only 2 goals of the season and he’s blocked 11 shots. Hey, if there’s a time to start heating up, the playoffs is it.

SHAONE MORRISONN – Does anybody know how to pronounce his first name? Is it more like “Shane” or more like “Shone?” Or “Shawn?” It seems like every time Rick Jeannerete calls him by his full name he kind of mumbles the first name just to get through it, probably looking over at Harry Neale with eyes that ask, “How the Hell do you pronounce those letters?”
I won’t lie. Shaone was my biggest disappointment this year, but I know that’s because he was supposed to replace Toni Lydman (whose departure I think hurt this team the most). He was injured for a long stretch of the season with a groin injury, but he has failed to deliver on his contract or paycheck. Then again he was the 5th best defenseman on the Capitals last year, and they’re not known for their competitive, stalwart defense.
GRADE – C He hasn’t done much, positive or negative, except give Myers a breather.

MARC-ANDRE GRAGNANI – After 9 games there isn’t much to go on. He has been a part of this late-season surge, and he might play a factor in the playoffs if Jordan Leopold isn’t ready to go. In 9 games Gragnani has a zero plus/minus and has 3 points, 6 hits, and 6 blocks. He’ll have to make a much bigger impact in the playoffs.

No, I’m not grading Craig Rivet.

OVERALL – As I said, the defense had a tough start. They lost their two longest-tenured veterans, and even though I do think that was for the better it did require some time to adjust. This defense is much more dynamic than Sabres’ defenses have been in the last 5 years. They don’t sit still and they aren’t what you would call traditionally “defensively responsible.” Aside from Morrisonn and Butler, all of these guys take chances, join the rush, step out of position to make a hit, and look to be The Guy that ends the game in overtime. The good news is that this defense has injected this team with scoring, and the bad news is they let in more goals. During the playoffs it’s a different game, and goals are harder to come by…its not far-fetched to think that a looser, run-and-gun defense will cause problems. Still, I think we’ll see more chances caused by this crew than goals let in because of them.

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Tags: Andrej Sekera Buffalo Buffalo Sabres Chris Butler Craig Rivet Derek Roy Eastern Conference Fansided Free Agency Henrik Tallinder Hockey Jordan Leopold Lindy Ruff Mike Weber NHL Northeast Division Olympics Patrick Kaleta Pegula Day Philadelphia Flyers Portland Pirates Ryan Miller Sabres Shaone Morrisonn Stanley Cup Stanley Cup Playoffs Terry Pegula Thomas Vanek Tim Connolly Toni Lydman Trade Trade Deadline Tyler Ennis Tyler Myers

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