The Buffalo Sabres had another disappointing season this year. The team wasn’t even able to contend for a wild-card spot, ranking 27 in the standings when all was said and done. They managed this poor ranking despite setting a record of 23-14-6 prior to the All-Star break, seeing a rapid degrading in every aspect as the season came to an end. This included the rapid breakdown of the Buffalo Sabres defence.
This was a very big surprise. Buffalo has had a long history of defensive-woes, with the 2017-18 season being particularly difficult. Fans expected a strong defence headed into the 2018-19 season, led by star-rookie Rasmus Dahlin. Instead, the fans watched a hot-and-cold blue line wade through the year. While rookies like Dahlin and Lawrence Pilut showed a lot of promise, it was negated by shaky play from the team’s veterans.
Fortunately for Sabres fans, the 2019-2020 season might finally be the year the team’s defence comes into its own. This past season saw a lot of surprises from youth and veterans alike. Buffalo will get the chance to fully flaunt these surprises next season. Today we look at how the Sabres could go about this, shaping their lineup to form what could be one of the best defencive cores in the league.
Predicting the 2019-2020 Buffalo Sabres Defence
Lawrence Pilut – Rasmus Ristolainen
This pairing is the easiest of the three to predict. The Sabres have treated Rasmus Ristolainen as their top defenceman since the 2015-16 season. In return, Ristolainen has scored over 40 points in each season since. He’s been a star for Buffalo but has one fatal flaw: he’s terrible in his own end. Despite being the team’s best defenceman offensively, Ristolainen has never managed a Corsi-For above 48.5. This past year, he set a CF% of 47.8, a stat that only one defenceman did worse in. Ristolainen also had the worst PDO, a stat that combines both shooting and save percentage while a player is on the ice, of any of the team’s defence.
These stats go to show that while Ristolainen is on the ice, the Sabres are much more inclined to allow quality scoring chances to their opponents. This is despite his great offence; further showing his woes on defence.
However, Pilut seemed to change all of this for Ristolainen. The duo has been one of the best pairings in Buffalo and Pilut has easily been the best partner for Ristolainen. Together, the two have recorded a CF% of 55, the highest of any of the Sabres five defensive pairings to play more than 200 minutes together. They also have a relative CF% of 5.45 and an xGF% of 52.7, the second highest on the team.
All of these stats prove that the duo of Pilut and Ristolainen dominated the play more than any other pairing was able to for Buffalo. They were a dynamic duo together, with their high xGF% showing just how lethal they were together. However, the two got very little ice time together before Pilut was sent back to the AHL. Next season will be a golden opportunity for the Sabres to recreate the pairing and see if they can match the solid performance they showed last season.
Rasmus Dahlin – Brandon Montour
This is a top-line pairing, headlined by the two best defensemen that Buffalo has. Unfortunately, they aren’t a top line in Buffalo. The Sabres over-reliance on Ristolainen forces the pairing of Dahlin and Brandon Montour to reside on the second pairing. There is a good chance that the Sabres new head coach could bump the two up, though.
On their own, both players had amazing years with the Sabres. Dahlin recorded 44 points in 82 games during his rookie season, the highest among any rookie defensemen. Montour was also a great addition to the Sabres blue-line. After coming to Buffalo at the trade deadline, he recorded 10 points in 20 games.
The two appeared on the ice together at least once a game for every game that Montour played with the Sabres last year. These appearances averaged out to about six minutes of ice time together each game. In that time, they were on the ice for four goals-for and three against. They also recorded a CF% of 57.2, the second highest on the team.
All-in-all, this is just a dynamic pairing. Both Dahlin and Montour are offensively-gifted defencemen and clearly complimented each other well in their small time together. They could prove to be one of the best, most well-rounded pairings in the league if the Sabres choose to give them a full season together. Playing with a player like Montour, as opposed to Zach Bogosian, could also bring out another level of offensive production from Dahlin. That would make the most impactful player on the Buffalo Sabres defence even better.
Jake McCabe – Casey Nelson
It’s easy to say that this pairing is simply the team’s leftovers. Yet, they could provide an amazing amount of depth for Buffalo heading into next season. Both players heated up tremendously towards the end of last season when the controversial head coach Phil Housley started giving them more ice time.
While they never played any time together last season, they’d have no trouble finding chemistry next season. A big part of this would simply Casey Nelson‘s great ability to make whoever he played with better. Last season, after being either injured or ignored for most of the year, Nelson became one of the most popular defencemen on the team. He played with Dahlin, Pilut, Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella over the course of the season. Every duo, except for with Scandella, managed to get a CF% of over 56. This was a big enough sample size to prove that Nelson had an uncanny ability to dominate the game, no matter who he was with. This includes with Scandella. Despite only recording a CF% of 46, that pairing saw five goals-for and only one goal-against during their time together.
This isn’t an all-star pairing but it could have a dominant effect on the Sabres success next season. They could be a fairly productive duo, though, if Nelson is able to bring out in the moderate McCabe what he brought out in his four aforementioned defence-partners. All things considered, to have this pairing as a third line is a blessing for Buffalo.
This will be the most controversial decision of all. While Bogosian only scored 19 points last season, he was one of the most consistent defencemen in Buffalo last season. He was the strong veteran that partnered with rookie Dahlin. He’s a strong defender that provided a good complement to Dahlin’s offense.
However, Bogosian just underwent his second hip surgery in two years. He’s had persistent health issues and his rebound from them isn’t guaranteed. Right now, he is slated to return just before next season’s training camp.
Even excluding the injuries, Bogosian was a likely candidate for this role. He didn’t jump off the page last season. The only player who was equally as unimpressive was McCabe, although McCabe saw far less ice time than Bogosian. Simply put, for Bogosian to only record 19 points despite averaging roughly nine minutes of ice time each game with the dazzling Dahlin. This pairing played the most ice time, on a game-to-game basis, of any in Buffalo last season. Yet, Bogosian couldn’t manage much of anything. That leaves him as the odd-man-out next season, although he will be a strong option to fill in for injuries or unproductive players. For the Buffalo Sabres defence to have such a reliable seventh man is very noteworthy.
Stats from Corsica.