The Buffalo Sabres have a lot of work to do. They sported a historically bad offense and despite lots of promise, their defense is still a concern in that it is largely unproven. Buffalo’s team-wide re-haul will begin about thirty seconds after the Stanley Cup is hoisted, likely by one of the teams that Buffalo will mimic in at least some ways in order to find a formula of their own that will return Buffalo the playoffs as a serious contender.
Today, we’ll examine one aspect of championship teams in the last few years that appears to be growing as a strength in the Buffalo Sabres organization: defensive depth.
While the Sabres have some nice young players along their blue line, as well as a few solid stalwarts, they should still look to these top tier teams as a reminder that depth is as important as top end talent. That means while the team is busy acquiring anyone who can put the puck in net, they’ll also want to be mindful of what separates the best in the league from the middle of the pack.
It’s easy to point to the flashy forwards on the final four teams from last year’s playoffs and say, “Well, of course they’re good!” And that helps. Greatly. We’ll talk about that at a later date. But to me, the stronger trend tying teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins, and the LA Kings (and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh) isn’t their top end forwards as much as it is the stellar blue line play they’ve received in each of their recent Cup runs. These aren’t just blue line cores that play tough in their own end. Both teams are littered with quick, skilled defensemen who can make a smart play to get the puck out of their zone as easily as they can put a hard shot on net.
Chicago, Boston, and LA are three of the strongest teams in terms of shots and possession, which is a stat that reflects strong defense as much as it does offense. While forwards typically rate higher in advanced metrics, the best forward in the world is only so good if no blue liners can hit him with a long pass.
Every team tries to play a little bit of dump and chase on their opponent and it’s up to the defensemen to kill the cycle and get the puck out of the zone. The better they are at that, the fewer shots the opponent gets, which affects numbers like the aforementioned. One of a team’s two blue liners is likely the first to touch the puck on a defensive possession. So it’s not only important that he has the physical size and/or stability to absorb harassment in his own end, but it’s dire that he possess the skill necessary to make a tough long pass from deep in his own zone to give the team possession in the attacking zone.
In the toughest war of attrition in pro sports, hockey is about consistency more than anything. Scoring goals is harder than preventing them, and often times puck luck will deny the best offenses come April and May. Obviously, you need a strong balance — and those three teams have it — but a strong blue line is the foundation of any Cup contender. Without it, the Cup is a pipe dream.
A top line center will play around twenty minutes in the playoffs while a top line defenseman can play nearly 30 minutes per game in his physical prime. That extra time spent on the ice allows that player to have an even bigger impact of the game. In general, your top four defensemen are going to be on the ice for more than two thirds of the game. If these guys are top notch, they will have a bigger impact on the game than even the best forward in hockey, who might play half of that time.
So what does all of this have to do with the Sabres? Well, for one, look at their defenseman from this year. Yikes and yuck. Two things should stand out. One, the Sabres had way less luck with injuries than any of the previous. Just look at that Chicago lineup again. Their top four defensemen missed four games combined. Two, there is a tighter, more talented unit lining up on the previous three. Buffalo is still in a tryout stage with most of their blue liners and thus haven’t established a quality defensive rotation. This is a struggle for a lot of teams.
Almost like a good basketball team, a good blue line unit in the NHL has to be a tight, reliable squad that can eat minutes and keep the play out of their own end while contributing to what happens on the other end.
This defense-heavy mold is the type of roster the Sabres need to strive for in the immediate future since they are closer to being decent in that area. This would allow them to build an identity sooner in this rebuild period, ensuring that the forwards are fostered in a better environment than what has been the standard in Buffalo for the past few years.
As we’re all swept up in the possibilities of drafting big time forwards, we can’t lose sight of the team aspect. Buffalo already stands poised to sport a solid blue line in a few years, as we’ve discussed here recently, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to let off the gas. Prospects are just that. There are no guarantees in this league, even after we’ve had glimpses of these players. Depth is needed all over, but if the Sabres are going to start outscoring teams on a regular basis again, they need to start by keeping the puck out of their own zone and out of their own net.
There is plenty of promise in the Buffalo organization, but that’s been the case before and those promises turned out to be mostly empty speculation. The Sabres have a chance to build a true strength and identity on their team. While they address the various and vast weaknesses on their team, it would be nice to have something to rely on, to make this team a consistently tough out. As we’ve all seen, building a great blue line is working in spades for some of the NHL’s best teams.