The other day, a reader asked me to devise a serious plan on how the Buffalo Sabres could make a strong push to make the playoffs.
At first, I was tempted to write back, “Start praying.” But since that is probably not what my readers want to hear, I decided to curb my sarcasm, sit down, and put on my mad scientist hat. After all, it’s not like the request is totally far-fetched. We’re not talking about a team that is 10+ points behind the 8th and final playoff spot; more like 5 points, with a lot of head-to-head meetings with the teams currently ahead of them in the conference standings. If the Sabres can craft an identity, devise a smart game plan and execute it to perfection, the playoffs could go from being a pipe dream to a reality. Here are my suggestions for how the Sabres can playing winning hockey down the stretch.
Start Owning the Faceoff Circle
Faceoffs have been a black eye for the Sabres, as they currently only win 46.3% of them. The only team in the NHL with a worse faceoff percentage than the Sabres is the Edmonton Oilers. Even the Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling Florida Panthers win 50.3% of their faceoffs. The only player on the Sabres with a faceoff percentage of over 50%, who has taken more than 100 faceoffs, is Steve Ott, who has won 59% of the faceoffs he has taken. By comparison, the Boston Bruins have four players who have taken over 100 faceoffs and won more than 50% of them; as a matter of fact, three of those players win over 60% of their faceoffs! Controlling the puck, especially when you are in your own end of the ice, is critical for a team that sometimes struggles to get the puck out of its zone, as if it was constantly on the penalty kill. Why is this such an Achilles heel for the Sabres? Do they practice this facet of their game, at all? Maybe I need to sit in on some NHL practices to see how big a priority faceoffs are, but every possession counts this late in the season, so the Sabres should be setting up stations where players square off for faceoff practice from now until the off season.
Get a Power Play
The Sabres don’t have a power play. Or sure, when they have a man advantage, they send a unit out on the ice that skates around and occasionally gets a shot on goal, but let’s get serious: when you only score on just over 11% of your power plays, you have no power play unit of which to speak. To add insult to injury, did you know that the Sabres not only have the worst rate-of-success on the power play in the NHL, but that they also have given up the most short-handed goals? It’s true! Astounding. If I were Ron Rolston and the rest of the coaching staff, I would run entire practices pitting a four-man squad against a five-man squad, and I would put some super aggressive, speedy players on the four-man squad. This team needs to figure out how to generate pressure while on the power play, but also where to be and what their responsibilities are, so they don’t end up getting burned by short-handed goals. Rolston also needs to figure out who ought to even be on the ice during the power play, because so far, his lineups have not been productive.
Spread the Wealth on Goaltending
The starting goaltending for the Sabres has not been a problem so far this season; Ryan Miller has been playing spectacular, and deserves a far better record than the 9-12-3 mark he currently owns. However, two of those overtime losses were, in my opinion, the result of Ryan Miller being over-played due to the concerns the Sabres had over whether or not Jhonas Enroth could get the job done anymore. The Sabres waited an awfully long time to use Enroth after he lost to Ottawa on February 5th – too long, if you ask me. Sadly, no one did. At any rate, Enroth has had two solid starts in a row, so he should now be part of a regular rotation that sees him in net every fifth of sixth game or so. Some fans might argue that now is the time to ride Ryan Miller, but I would hold off on that approach until Enroth regresses into the shell of himself we saw earlier this season (which I hope doesn’t happen). The Sabres should use Miller often, but adopt a regulated schedule of when he can rest, so if he needs to play more frequently come crunch time, he will have the gas in the tank to do so.
Getting Three Productive Lines
It was great to see Marcus Foligno score two goals against the Rangers, just like it was great to see Nathan Gerbe score his first two goals of the season against the Florida Panthers a few weeks ago. The problem is, the Sabres cannot rely on their lines to create offense night in and night out. Gerbe has only scored once since his two goal effort on February 28th; Foligno’s two goals last night give him a whopping three for the season, as well. I love the fact that Steve Ott is now playing on the second line, but cannot for the life of me figure out why Mkihail Grigorenko played on a line with John Scott last night, and was only on the ice for all of five minutes (in which time he did manage to get one shot on goal). Now that the Thomas Vanek – Jason Pominville – Cody Hodgson line has become human, the Sabres are going to need to skate at least three lines a night that can generate pressure in the offensive zone. The Steve Ott – Tyler Ennis – Nathan Gerbe line was clicking pretty well before Ennis went down, but I still don’t love Gerbe and Ennis together, and would like to see Grigorenko paired with someone who might actually score.
There are certain players on the Buffalo Sabres’ roster who just are not producing. Whether this is a case of players being injured, players who over-valued and offered contracts they will never live up to, or players who just need a change of scenery, the bottom line is that the Sabres have too many broken parts on their machine. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Darcy Regier and the Sabres organization are just sitting back, waiting to see how this current roster will perform. The results are in, guys: inconsistently! Erratically! You think of a synonym for the phrase “Up and down,” and there’s your answer! You don’t even need to just look at this season: there’s a trend building, yet the Sabres are doing nothing to change it. Does Darcy really think Drew Stafford is just going to start lighting it up? That Jordan Leopold is a solid blueliner? That Ville Leino is going to step in and be the piece the Sabres have been missing offensively? And if he does believe these things, can I apply for his job? Because apparently, you need no experience or understanding of the game of hockey to be the GM of the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres had as bad a first half of the season as they could have, and they still sit only five points out of the playoffs. They need someone to put them over the hump, so Regier needs to do his job and go get that someone. Not only will making a trade remove some of the dead weight that is holding this roster back, it could go a long way toward helping the Sabres improve in one, two, or even three of the other areas of concern I have highlighted: faceoff percentages, the power play, and getting production out of three lines every single game.
Play Disciplined Hockey
As of today, the Buffalo Sabres are the third most penalized team in the NHL, averaging 14.8 penalty minutes per game. Meanwhile, their penalty kill is only effective 79% of the time. Combine those two facts, and you can come to the conclusion that the Sabres are gifting their opponents one power play per game. Not a recipe for success. Ill-timed penalties have haunted the Sabres all year, such as games against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils in which the Sabres had the lead and the momentum, only to commit penalties that allowed those teams to score and get their home crowds back in the game. I don’t know what Ron Rolston can do to get his team to play hard, yet smart, hockey – maybe he can institute his own fine system – but momentum-killing penalties have cost the Sabres too many games already this year, and if they want to make the playoffs, they have to cleanse their system of these cancers.
Well, there it is! If I were in charge of the Sabres, this would be my blueprint for success. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the Sabres need to fix . . . yet, since I don’t see these problems getting fixed, maybe it does. I don’t expect the Sabres to actually be able to fix each of these six areas, but fixing two or even three of them would go a long way to helping the team maintain a consistent level of play that would result in some winning hockey. It seems weird to be writing this, given how poorly the blue and gold have played in stretches this year, but making the playoffs is still a realistic goal for this team. Let’s just hope the people within the organization are as aware of the problems I have outlined as we fans are.