The Buffalo Sabres have gone back to their old ways to start the second half of the season. They’ve gone 4-6-0 in their last 10 games, and three of the four wins were decided by a single goal. This is a far cry from the prolific 17-6-2 record they set through their first 25 games. After a five-game losing streak to end November, the team hasn’t even won two consecutive games. These struggles can be linked to a lot of issues but the Buffalo Sabres defence may be the biggest of them all.
Phil Housley, Sabres head coach, hasn’t been able to find out which defensemen to play. Buffalo currently has eight on their NHL roster and has been cycling through a variety of different pairings. The problem is, Housley is continuously cycling through these pairings without any thought. He’s not keeping duos that work together, instead of letting everyone get fair playing time; as if he were coaching a team of Pee-Wees. Today, I’ll try to make a solidified group of six defensemen that the Sabres should use.
Sorting Out what the Buffalo Sabres Defence Should Look Like
Lawrence Pilut – Rasmus Ristolainen
This pairing is almost too easy to pick out. Rasmus Ristolainen is often considered the best of the Buffalo Sabres defence. He deserves a spot on the top line. He exhibits an elite offensive ability and leads the team’s defence in scoring. Still, his play defensively is horrendous. He’s been on the ice for 42 goals-against at five-on-five, the most on the team. Alongside Marco Scandella, Ristolainen has been one of the most consistently compromising defensemen the Sabres have.
With that said, Ristolainen’s offence is too good to overlook. For the past few years, the Sabres have been trying to find a defensive partner for Ristolainen that can both promote his offensive-style of play and compensate for his defensive woes. Through all of their searching, Lawrence Pilut has been the best match so far.
The rookie defenseman was called up in late-November to try and spark the team a bit. While he wasn’t able to make a huge change in the win column, he’s been one of the best Sabres defensemen since then. His five points in 17 games aren’t telling enough of how strong he’s been. He’s looked fundamentally amazing on the ice, something that is only compounded by the worsening team around him
When Pilut and Ristolainen are put together, they are one of the few defensive pairs the Sabres have that are positive. Their pairing has been on the ice for eight goals-for and seven goals-against. This is the only pairing Ristolainen has been on that is currently positive, and goes to show why Pilut needs to be paired with Ristolainen. Simply put, Ristolainen plays better when Pilut is manning the other side. If the Sabres want to take full advantage of ‘Risto’s’ scoring potential, they need to keep the rookie-defenseman with him.
Rasmus Dahlin – Zach Bogosian
It’s a bit upsetting that this pairing isn’t on the top line. They would have been if it weren’t for the terrible game that Zach Bogosian had on Friday night. The strong defenseman had multiple giveaways in the defensive zone and, all-in-all looked terrible. This was hard to watch, simply because Bogosian has been one of the strongest players in Buffalo this year. While he isn’t an elite defenseman, he’s at least been reliable.
Rasmus Dahlin has been just as reliable during his rookie season. Coming into the league, a lot of people were excited about Dahlin’s elite offensive. As the year’s gone on, though, it’s his passing and hockey IQ that have stolen the show. His very impressive 28 points in 50 games have come as a result of amazing passing and an uncanny ability on the team’s breakout. With that said, Dahlin plays best with Bogosian. His speedy playing style complements Bogosian’s strong, physical play very well.
This line has been great for the Sabres and will continue to be when Bogosian gets his stride back. If they can continue to play the way they have, they’ll likely overtake the equally as strong, aforementioned, top line.
Jake McCabe – Casey Nelson
It’s tempting to call this line ‘The Scraps’, but they’re not scraps at all. Both Jake McCabe and Casey Nelson have very well deserved their spots on the day-to-day roster. The issue is, McCabe has been the only one to be able to stay day-to-day. In fact, the team has had weirdly high hopes in McCabe. His most popular linemates are Ristolainen and Dahlin, two of the best players the Sabres have. With those pairings, he’s been virtually invisible. In 42 games, alongside some of the best offensive-defensemen in the league, McCabe only has 14 points.
So it’s hard to confidently say that McCabe deserves a top-line role. His time with Ristolainen was a bust and he wasn’t any more productive with Dahlin. Still, his point totals have easily earned him a role on the team. He ranks second of the team’s defensemen in hit totals, third on the team as a whole. This has also been his best season to date, as far as production goes. He’s only six points behind his career-high, which he set in 76 games back in 2016-17. If he’s paired with the right partner, he could destroy that career-high.
Nelson is, easily, the best partner for McCabe. He has five points in 22 games this year, putting him on pace for seven more if he plays in every game remaining in the season. Sure, 12 points aren’t impressive by any means, but he’s been the best of the remaining defensemen. He’s also the only remaining right-handed shot that the Sabres have. While he isn’t a star player, his modest playing style compliments McCabe’s play and there aren’t many other options with the team’s current roster.
Nathan Beaulieu is a special case, unfortunately. He spent most of his career being fairly highly touted but never came to fruition. Now, after a modest seven points in 27 games, Beaulieu is begging for more ice time. He’s supposedly requested a trade if he can’t get an increase in minutes with the Sabres. The issue is, he probably won’t.
McCabe has easily won the third-line left-defenseman role and playing a player on their off-hand is a very unattractive idea. Despite that, Beaulieu has been playing on his off-hand all year. That goes to show how cluttered the Sabres are on left-defence. Yes, Beaulieu has played decently and could do well in a bottom-four role, but that role isn’t going to come in Buffalo unless McCabe takes a complete 180-degree turn.
Scandella isn’t a special case, he is blatantly not an NHL talent. He has consistently had the worst possession metrics of any defenseman the team has combined with virtually never showing up on the score sheet. To put it bluntly, he’s bad in both the offensive and defensive zone. There is no reason he should be getting consistent ice time in the NHL.
Yet, the Sabres keep playing him. In fact, the left-handed shooting Scandella has played more than McCabe, Beaulieu, Nelson, and Pilut. He also averages more ice time than all of those mentioned players except for McCabe. He’s suited up for 43 games this year and has only managed an abysmal nine points. He had a mediocre season last year, with 22 points, but can’t manage any positives this year. When he is on the ice, the Sabres are going to get scored on; it’s that simple.
Overall, it doesn’t seem like there’s any sort of difficulty in making these pairings. Most fans agree on them as well. It’s simply putting like-with-like, and keeping them together if they produce. Yet, the Sabres keep resorting to mismatched lines and constant changes. With only 30 games left this year, they don’t have any time to keep changing their defensive pairings up. The team is struggling for a playoff spot and keeps losing, so some consistency needs to be found. It seems like these Buffalo Sabres defence pairings could be that consistency and could spark a major turnaround in Buffalo’s play.