Maybe there’s a Reason For the Buffalo Sabres’ December Struggles
Oh, how times have changed in Buffalo. Just over a month ago, the Sabres headed into a matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning riding a 10-game win streak and competing for the President’s Trophy. Before that game, I wrote how their recent success probably wasn’t going to be sustainable unless the team started to play better during 5v5 play. Unfortunately for Sabre fans, I was correct in my assessment. You can read that here.
The Sabres had a miserable December and have just about given away the lead they had in the playoff race, culminating with a critical loss to the New York Islanders on New Year’s Eve. I expected things to get worse, but not to the extent they have. This got me to thinking every negative issue the Sabres have had this month. The team has dealt with multiple injuries to their defenders and also saw the contract termination of Patrik Berglund. After taking a deeper dive into some of the Sabres’ numbers this season, I think there needs to be a discussion centered around a couple players that have been missing. Those players are Berglund and Casey Nelson.
The Absence of Patrik Berglund
The discussion of Patrik Berglund is one that is multi-faceted. The considerations that need to be considered here include both the on-ice implications and the possible off-ice implications. I’m going to start with the off-ice implications, a very complicated matter. There has been very little discussion about what occurred with Berglund and why he left the team, leading to his contract being terminated. I will never speculate about a player’s personal life so whatever occurred with Berglund, I hope he gets everything in order. However, I have to wonder what type of impact the situation had on the team. Since Berglund played his last game with Buffalo on December 8th, the Sabres have went 4-7-3 in those games. That is obviously not good. Without having any sort of access to the Sabres’ locker room, I think it is difficult to draw any sort of conclusions. However, I also think it would be irresponsible to completely ignore the intangible aspect of Berglund’s departure, regardless of what the players and coaches are saying.
Even though I have no pulse on the intangible aspects of Berglund’s departure, that does not mean the numbers can’t provide us some insights. When Patrik Berglund was on the ice, the Sabres had virtually the same shot metrics versus when he was off the ice. For a player playing a bottom six role, I would be happy with that contribution. However, the Sabres’ goal differential was 28% worse with Berglund on the ice and their expected goals for percentage was six percent worse. However, I also think it is important to look at how the Sabres performed with and without Berglund in the lineup.
You may be wondering why I have decided to assess Berglund from this perspective so let me quickly elaborate before I discuss what the numbers show. One of the reasons the weaknesses the Sabres’ general manager, Jason Botterill, identified this offseason was the team’s depth. Part of the reason for trading Ryan O’Reilly is the team was hoping that the return could help them put a more balanced team on the ice. This means instead of filling the bottom of the roster with players that shouldn’t be playing in the NHL, the Sabres were able to slot in players who have proven they can at least play at an acceptable NHL level. When they are out of the lineup, everyone gets bumped up a spot so the lineup is weakened. It could also disrupt some line chemistry. Below I have shown how the Sabres stack up in some key measures with and without Patrik Berglund in the lineup.
The Sabres have played just about the same number of games with and without Patrik Berglund and have seen a drop-off in their shot metrics without Berglund in the lineup. Please note, when I use the term I mean everything towards goal. If I want to talk about just those shots on goal, I will call them just that, which has translated to a drop in winning percentage, which is not a major surprise. The one number that is most surprising is the Sabres have actually outscored opponents without Berglund in the lineup and they haven’t overall or with him in. I would be willing to bet that the Sabres will either start controlling the shots more or start to see their goals for percentage fall, which would definitely mean their winning percentage begins to drop. I definitely believe getting his contract off the books long-term is still incredibly beneficial but for Sabre fans hoping to see their team in the playoffs, I think the departure of Berglund is being felt more than has been talked about, at least in the short-term. Deep breaths Sabre fans, I might be able to put you a little more at ease.
Remember that paragraph about how the Sabres improved their depth and because of it weren’t putting players who shouldn’t be in the NHL in their lineup? Weeeelllllll……. This is where the Sabres have a problem and his name is Remi Elie. I can appreciate the Sabres wanting to give Elie a fair shot. After all, he hasn’t been terrible in the past, he is still young, is willing to play a physical game, and provides some decent speed. Last year in Dallas, he played 72 games and while he was on the ice, Dallas was virtually even in their shot share and improved their goals for percentage. I would take that production out of a fourth line player. Unfortunately, he has provided nothing near this for Buffalo, as the Sabres’ shot share has been 8% worse and their goal differential has been a whooping 23% worse when Elie is on the ice. Their expected goal differential is 12% worse However, just like Berglund, I wanted to look at the overall picture when he is in the lineup versus when he is not. For added context, I have also provided how the Sabres performed when Elie played and Berglund did not as well as how the Sabres performed with neither in the lineup.
Although the sample is a little limited, it seems as though playing Remi Elie is a major problem for the Sabres. The only aspect of the game where the Sabres improve is their save percentage when Elie plays versus when he doesn’t. That could definitely be a sample size issue. I think the last two rows are where the Sabres and their fans should look at for the team going forward. Berglund is obviously gone so the Sabres need to decide if Elie is a reasonable replacement. Again, I want to remind that there is a small sample but it seems pretty clear that the Sabres shouldn’t be relying on Elie to replace Berglund. The Sabres may have realized that when they recalled and inserted C.J. Smith into their lineup New Year’s Eve against the Islanders. Yes, they lost the game but also played one of their best games recently and they did that with Jack Eichel exiting in the first period.
Overall, I think the loss of Berglund likely contributes a little to the Sabres’ recent struggles and is something I don’t think is being discussed enough. However, I think with the right approach, they may be able to negate that effect. If I am calling the shots in Buffalo, I would put Elie on waivers. If he clears, send him to Rochester to get some playing time and see if he can regain his form from last season. He cannot see the ice again in Buffalo. The team’s numbers are just too bad. I certainly would give Smith more chances to slot into the Sabres’ bottom six. Side note: Smith is a player who projects as a tremendous depth forward but isn’t going to light up the score sheet and shouldn’t be counted on as a top-six player long-term. The team is likely waiting until Scott Wilson is healthy so he can play that depth role but currently, the Sabres are one absence away from having to play Elie again. I would hope there is a contingency plan in place until Wilson is healthy that does not include Elie.
The Absence of Casey Nelson
Ironically, my inspiration for writing this article was the absence of Casey Nelson, who I think is one of the Sabres’ unsung heroes so far this season. To me, he is the new breed of “stay at home defensemen,” someone who is steady enough in his own end and pairs well with partners who are more free wielding, puck-moving defensemen. Over the past two seasons, Rasmus Dahlin, Brendan Guhle, and Nathan Beaulieu all have positive shot metrics when playing with Nelson but are negative when playing away from Nelson. I know there are mixed feelings on Beaulieu but the other two defensemen are players the Sabres and their fans have high hopes for and both players have benefited from playing with Casey Nelson. Just like I did in the previous section, I wanted to look at how the Sabres have performed with and without Casey Nelson in the lineup. That breakdown can be seen below.
I think the Sabres miss Nelson. Their winning percentage is far superior with Nelson in the lineup. However, their winning percentage seems less of a fluke because of the underlying numbers when Nelson has played versus when he has been out. Their shot share is nearly even and they are strongly controlling the goal differential when he is in the lineup.
Hopefully, the numbers I have presented here offer enough support for you to appreciate what Nelson provides when he is in the lineup. The problem is the Sabres have a little bit of a logjam on their blueline of average defenders with the likes of Marco Scandella, Casey Nelson, Nathan Beaulieu, and Matt Hunwick. They also have Lawrence Pilut whose future appears bright but is still waiver eligible. Rasmus Dahlin, Zach Bogosian, and Rasmus Ristolainen are not going to come out of the lineup as long as they are healthy. Jake McCabe is probably somewhere in between. If I’m setting the lineup with every defenseman healthy, I would have Nelson and Beaulieu as my 3rdpair. I highly doubt the Sabres take my advice there.
The Sabres have been relatively lucky when it comes to players in and out of the lineup. They have had some issues on the blueline but those few games shouldn’t define their season. However, for a team who is still rebuilding their organizational depth, the loss of some of their depth players appears to have a major impact on the team’s performance. The Sabres had a rough December and many fans and media members have been advocating for the Sabres to make some roster tweaks. I think the Sabres should wait and see how the team responds once Nelson is reinserted into the lineup and Elie is hel out in favor of Smith and whoever else might be needed in case of injury.
Statistics courtesy of Corsica.hockey and contract data courtesy of capfriendly.com.
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.