Hockey is really truly back. We have unexpected wagons like the Red Wings disaster classes like the Oilers, and the Islanders exist. But what about the Buffalo Sabres? After being possibly the most hyped-up team this offseason, they’ve been slow out the gate. But it’s still early. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly.
A More Defensive Approach
When you watch the Sabres this year, last year’s offensive spectacle can still be seen. Rasmus Dahlin flipping the puck 10 yards over to Jeff Skinner exciting rushes and some excellent puck movement. But there is an obvious shift in the way this team wants to win. They want to win not by outscoring an opponent but by preserving leads. Don Granato has had his team breaking the puck out smoother than last year. Centres no longer fly the zone without a second thought. Wingers wait until the time is right, save for a few exceptions (looking at your Alex Tuch). Results have been mixed, though. Some defensemen have struggled to make clean breakout passes, mainly Connor Clifton and Henri Jokiharju. And the young Sabres d core has trouble tying up sticks in front of the net. Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin really need to work on this. But they are both young, so it will come with time. The biggest surprise to me has been the centres really getting back to assist on defence. Speaking of centres…
The Mittelstadt Revenge Tour
I have been vocal about my distaste of Casey Mittelstadt in the past. He was irresponsible defensively, and he made selfish decisions with the puck. He put up empty stats, and his underlying analytics supported that. He must have heard me and decided to shut my mouth. Casey Mittelstadt looks like Buffalo’s most complete forward, not named Dylan Cozens. I never thought I would say that. His analytics are great, sporting an xGF % of 54.5 during 5 on 5 play. This essentially means Mitts’ is getting high-quality shots and is expected to score more than half the time based on past chances. But at the same time, the eye test says he is getting those chances the right way. He is distributing the puck and finding the soft spots in the ice. And finally. FINALLY. He has a defensive game. He is down in the corners, hitting forecheckers and covering for overextended dmen. Casey Mittelstadt is playing effective defense. I’m just utterly shocked. I hope Mitts keeps this up; it looks like he has finally arrived.
Despite Mitts’ great start, the rest of the roster seems to be having some trouble finding the back of the net. Tage Thompson scored his first goal four games into the season and hasn’t scored otherwise. He’s got a bit of a monkey on his back right now. That goes for all of Buffalo’s guys. Maybe the more defensive approach will affect the scoring, but I don’t agree with that sentiment. This is something these forwards have to figure out. You can’t preserve leads if you don’t get them in the first place.
Special Teams Inversion
Last year, Buffalo had a horrid PK but a top 5 PP. This year, Buffalo so far has the 5th best penalty kill and the 29th-ranked power play. Freaky Friday. Their kill has looked phenomenal, too, so I don’t think this is a flash in the pan. They are covering passing lanes, getting on the power play QB, and pressuring them into making dumb decisions. They are also blocking a ton of shots and limiting said shots to the outside. Overall, an excellent look. The first unit of Jordan Greenway and Tage Thompson are an unexpected powerhouse of defense. The power play, however, looks bad. Not for lack of trying, but the shots just aren’t falling. And PKs have caught on to the fact that Thompson is their go-to. I think the Sabres need to find new ways to get him open. Maybe start running the plays through the high slot bumper a little more. But I believe it will improve in time.
Now, to the elephant in the room. It is a COMPLETE overreaction to say Devon Levi is a problem. What I see is a young goalie who looks comfortable in the NHL but needs a little more support from his defensemen. Most of the goals scored on him are within five feet of the net or absolute cross-crease gimmes. That’s defence, not goaltending. The stats may not show it yet, but Levi is well on his way to being a great starter in this league. With only one Eric Comrie game and no UPL games, we have to wait and see on the other goalies. But I am firmly against the idea that Levi isn’t ready. He makes all the saves he needs to, and the defense just didn’t give him a chance to win in those first two games.
More hockey awaits, and I am optimistic about the Sabres. Hockey season is back, and regardless of the outcome of this season, nothing beats the best sport in the world.