The Sabres entered the 2012 season with high expectations. New owner Terry Pegula infused the franchise with cash which allowed management to add Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, and the contract of Ales Kotalik (he spent 2012 in the Czech Republic). The combined cap hit of the guys who stayed in the league (Ehrhoff, Leino, and Regehr) was $12.52 million.
Unfortunately, despite the injection of cash, the Sabres fell out of the playoffs.
Buffalo drank the poisonous cocktail of being soft, being terrible at faceoffs, and banking on big years from numerous guys with significantly elevated shooting percentages. Some red flags should have been obvious, but this is a team that was still too talented to end up where they did.
Making It Rain
The Pegula era started with a bang. The combined cap hit for the Sabres big three acquisitions was a reasonable 12 million dollars, but in the strange universe that houses the NHL salary cap, the Sabres actually committed 38 million in real dollars for just the first two years of those three guys. 18 million was committed to Ehrhoff, 12 million to Leino, and presumably 8 million to Regehr. Needless to say, that’s a lot of cheddar.
In total Ehrhoff picked up 40 million dollars over a ten year deal. Reactions to the deal were generally ok, but skeptical of the length. Ehrhoff missed 16 games to injury, but in the 66 games he played he was almost exactly what the Sabres should have expected. His powerplay production dropped, but his even strength points/60 rose from .82 in 2011 to .97 in 2012. 2012 wasn’t a season that would change your opinion on Ehrhoff one way or the other. If you liked the deal when it was signed you still should. If you didn’t, nothing happened that should change your opinion either.
The Sabres got exactly what they should have expected from Regehr also. Regehr’s defensive reputation is well known, but the inability to move the puck out of your own end can overshadow any player’s defensive contributions. This example from Dave Tippett never gets old, and is appropriate any time a defensive defenseman is the topic of discussion :
“We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.
“Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.”
As KuklasKorner pointed out last August, Regehr had a poor zone start adjusted Corsi, and in similar ice time with the Sabres his Corsi continued to drop (from -3.62 to -10.88). Regehr might still be good defensively, but the amount of time he spends defending is going to be a problem going forward for the Sabres.
Another problem going forward is Ville Leino, and the Sabres should have seen it coming.
Betting On Shooting Percentage Spikes
Leino’s breakout year with the Philadelphia Flyers came out of nowhere. Prior to 2011, he had 20 points in 68 career games In 2011 Leino played in 81 games, netting 19 goals and 53 points. Two pieces of information should have been significant red flags for Buffalo. Leino saw heavily sheltered minutes with the Flyers, and his production benefitted from a shooting percentage spike.
Outside of the Flyers fourth liners, Leino faced the lowest Corsi Relative Quality of Competition among Flyers forwards. 62.3% of Leino’s faceoffs were in the offensive zone which was ten percentage points higher than any other Flyer, and only 12 players in the league got more favorable zone starts among forwards who played in at least 50 games. The heavily sheltered minutes he saw in Philadelphia signalled that his production was somewhat of a mirage.
Leino’s shooting percentage spike should have given the Sabres pause as well. Prior to the 2011 season Leino had a respectable 11.7% shooting percentage. During his breakout 2011 season he saw it jump to 16.7%. Shooting percentages are volatile for sure, but Leino’s short track record should have been a big enough red flag to cause the Sabres some concern before handing out 27 million dollars over six years. The shooting percentage spike combined with the sheltered minutes made this contract dangerous the moment it was signed.
Drew Stafford was attacked by the shooting percentage monsters in 2012 too. Coming off of a season that saw him score 52 points in 62 games (including 30 goals), expectations were high. He was very good last year, but scoring 10 less goals in 20 more games is bound to leave observers disappointed. The main culprit is the huge drop in Stafford’s shooting percentage. It fell to 8.8% from 17.8% from 2011 to 2012. If it rebounds to nearer to his career average of 12.1% and he sustains a similar shots/60 he could be in for a big season.
Building Depth At Center
The Sabres center corps is significantly different heading into the 2013 season. Out are Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad. In are Steve Ott and Cody Hodgson. The Sabres also spent first round picks on centers Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko, widely considered a top three talent in the draft, could make the Sabres out of camp.
The Sabres needed a makeover up the middle. They finished 19th in the NHL in faceoff % as a team. Coming into this offseason, the only forward on the Sabres roster who took more than 200 draws and won more than 50% of those was Roy. Steve Ott (55.5%) will help, but the Sabres need a center in the top six to step forward to really stem the faceoff failure tide.
As important as faceoffs are, the stable of centers the Sabres have acquired are in town to put goals in the board. Hodgson was on a 42 point pace at the time of his trade from Vancouver, and slipped to a 33 point pace in Buffalo. Grigorenko scored 85 points in 59 games for the Quebec Remparts (an NHL equivalence of 35.4), and Girgensons was a point per game player in the USHL. They both give the Sabres a bright scoring future up the middle that should begin making an impact sooner than later.
Defending Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller had an up and down season in net for the Sabres. The signature event of his season was when Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins cleaned his clock as Miller tried to play a puck way out of his crease. The hit spurred the Sabres into action after the season to add some toughness to the roster. As a rsult, Buffalo should have plenty of frontier justice in supply with the additions of Ott and John Scott.
Scott isn’t what you would call a “good” hockey player. He’s on a roster for the purpose of protecting the stars by acting as a deterrent to cheap shots like the one levied by Lucic on Miller. Whether or not that actually works is up for debate, but the Sabres are hoping Scott’s presence will make Eastern Conference bunkmates think twice before running one of their key players.
The addition of Ott further solidified the Sabres defense of Miller. He and Patrick Kaleta will form the basis for one of the most annoying lines in recent memory. Annoying doesn’t necessarily translate into being tough, but this duo has shown a willingness to drop the gloves in the past. Buffalo will be much tougher to play against in 2013, but it remains to be seen how much this will impact the standings.
The Sabres could go either way in 2013. They focused on getting tougher, and they improved the upside of their center position significantly for the future. The biggest addition for the 2013 season though was Steve Ott. They appear to be banking on internal improvements from their forwards to improve the offense, and they did little to address the defense. If the Sabres young forwards take a step forward as a group they could find themselves back in the playoffs. If not, they will once again be on the outside looking in.