What Should the Sabres do with Nathan Beaulieu?
On Wednesday night, the Associated Press’s John Wawrow clarified an earlier report from Renaud Lavoie regarding the Buffalo Sabres’ Nathan Beaulieu. Wawrow spoke to Beaulieu’s agent who said that his client wanted more playing time, whether that be in Buffalo or elsewhere. Beaulieu confirmed these remarks the following day. Between Lavoie’s report and Wawrow’s report, I took to Twitter saying that maybe the Sabres should be playing Beaulieu more. I put together a quick thread of my reasoning but wanted to do a little more extended of a write-up.
Assessing the Sabres’ Situation
When Jason Botterill took over the Sabres from Tim Murray in 2017, he inherited a defense that was probably the worst in the NHL. In short time, Botterill had added Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild and Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens. At the time, the two acquisitions seemed like savvy pickups, especially considering the relatively low-price tag and massive need they addressed. The 2017-18 season went much worse than anyone expected, allowing the Sabres to win the lottery and draft future superstar, Rasmus Dahlin. During the 2017-18 season, the team struggled in every aspect of the game, but their defense and goaltending was still probably the weakest link on the team.
Botterill again went to work in adding more talent on the blueline. Drafting Dahlin certainly helped, but his best move may have been signing Swedish free agent, Lawrence Pilut. The Sabres for the first time in a long time, found themselves with a plethora of quality left-handed defensemen (LHD), which means someone with NHL talent would find themselves on the outside of the lineup every night. If I were ordering the Sabres’ LHD, I would probably go something like this:
I think the biggest question I would face is why Beaulieu above Jake McCabe. The narrative around McCabe this season has probably been higher than it should. Below I have included a chart with the Sabres’ LHD (who have played 50 minutes), that shows how they have been performing in some important measures. The stats were collected prior to the games on January 18 from Corsica.hockey and are unadjusted 5v5 stats.
I think these numbers paint a clear picture of the LHD. The Sabres’ continuous play of McCabe and Scandella over Pilut and Beaulieu is a problem. I would have no qualms with giving any of the LHD outside of Dahlin a night off here and there. It does appear there is some justification for keeping Beaulieu on the outside of the lineup. With Beaulieu in the lineup, the Sabres are 11-13 and 12-10 when he is out of the lineup. Additionally, they have been 3% better in the shot share when Beaulieu is out of the lineup. I don’t know if I have a good reason for that.
What Should the Sabres Do?
If you want to look at each players’ numbers individually, it is pretty clear Beaulieu should be playing. However, overall, it looks like the Sabres as a team are better with Beaulieu out of the lineup. The Sabres could use some help with their secondary scoring and I would think they would be able to find a third-line player who could provide it in exchange for Beaulieu.
I think the “change of scenery” cliché is over used as many times the player just isn’t good and a trade isn’t going to make them suddenly good again. However, this is a situation where I think the change of scenery idea could benefit the acquiring team. Individually, Beaulieu has proven that he could be a very competent bottom pair defender and could probably play some minutes in a second pair role. However, I don’t think the Sabres are completely off base by keeping him out of the lineup as they have done better with him out of the lineup. Beaulieu is still young enough and will still be a restricted free agent after the season, that there should be enough interest to make a fair move for all parties involved.
Overall, the Sabres have a logjam on defense but the logjam is because they have too many average to below average defenders. They are also in a precarious position where they need to ensure they are playing their best players night in and night out. Unless they have a trade lined up for Beaulieu (or something close), I would give him an extended chance to play once the team returns from their bye week and All-Star break. I would think something has to give when looking at his numbers individually versus the team when he is in the lineup. At some point, they will likely be more in agreement.
Statistics courtesy of Corsica.hockey.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.