Over the past few years, any time the Sabres have put together a clunker on par with any of the first three games of their current road trip, the team’s responses to fans and media have always centered on a familiar buzz-word, “the system.” Losses are blamed on straying from it; and returning to its structure is on par with “going to the dirty areas” and “getting pucks to the net” as cliched press conference phrases on how to get the team back on track. But what exactly is the system that Lindy Ruff has touted for the past two and a half seasons?
The answer is a blend of puck possession offense and collapsing defense. Offensively, this strategy looks to wear down the opposition down low on the cycle, maintain zone time through an active, pinching defense corps and eventually get pucks through to the net. On defense, the game plan is to keep the puck to the perimeter, allowing a higher-than-average number of shots, but few quality scoring chances.
Unfortunately, theory doesn’t always work out in practice, and the Sabres are struggling on both sides of the ice. They sit twenty fourth and twenty fifth in goals for and against, and haven’t won consecutive games in two months. Most recently, the Sabres extended their franchise record road losing streak to a shocking eleven games with a loss last night to the Winnipeg Jets. They’re a below average puck possession team, ranking nineteenth in both shots and takeaways, and judging by their abysmal goals against average, their fifth-worst 31.5 shots allowed are juicier opportunities than their defensive scheme should allow.
The Sabres’ offensive struggles can be pinned on an inability to establish their cycle. Part of this is because the team lacks a power forward on their top lines, but just as much blame lies at Ruff’s feet, namely, his unwillingness to emphasize pressure and physicality. The coach prefers a positional game to a passionate one, and it’s very evident with quotes such as this:
“You want to be physical? It’s got to be puck battles, who comes up with it. You can run around and hit all you want. If you don’t get the puck back, it doesn’t do any good.”
What’s so surprising about this attitude is that Lindy has seen first hand what physicality for physicality’s sake can do. Opposing teams have had field days sending two forwards below the goal line to rush the Sabres’ decision making. It’s clearly been an effective strategy, because in addition to their abysmal defensive statistics, Buffalo is also top ten in giveaways. Even Detroit and Chicago, teams not known for their physical edges, terrorized the Sabres defense with their relentless pressure this past week, with the Red Wings announcers literally laughing the Sabres off the ice. A supposedly impartial NBC Sports telecast wasn’t much nicer.
Another reason for the Sabres’ inability to put the puck in the net is Ruff’s insistence on balancing icetime. Only two forwards, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have exhibited any sort of offensive consistency, yet they’ve sunk to sixth and fifth in even strength TOI, behind Jochen Hecht, Derek Roy,Ville Leino and Drew Stafford, who haven’t scored more than the Sabres’ first line wingers combined. Compared to the rest of the league, Buffalo’s overwhelmingly best forwards play significantly less than other top liners. Even middling players like Tomas Fleischmann and enigmas like Danny Heatley play an average of over a minute and a half more at even strength.
At the other end of the ice, Buffalo’s defensive struggles are occurring because even with a healthy defense corps, Ruff simply doesn’t have the horses to play the system he has in place. While the collapse has its merits, and namely, the Bruins use it to great effect, Boston has several attributes that allow them to play such a style of hockey.
The Bruins have an aggressive goaltender in Tim Thomas who constantly makes the first save without spitting out costly rebounds. They have a defense littered with neaderthalic defensemen, who aren’t great in space or transition, but will maul anyone who gets too close to the crease. They have a Selke-caliber defensive center in Patrice Bergeron. They wear opponents down with their physicality in all three zones and have a crushing cycle game, so even when you get a shift in their zone, you’re not in the best shape to do something with it. They also aren’t afraid to cross the line to send a message.
Buffalo, on the other hand, currently has a starting goaltender with poor rebound control and a worse save percentage. Their defense is mostly mobile guys who defend more with positioning and sticks than with the body. Their best defensive forward is Jochen Hecht. They have issues establishing the cycle and as already mentioned, their coach doesn’t emphasize physical play. They also don’t stand up for each other and would rather take the power play than retaliate in kind (a problem for another column).
This is a team that wants to spend as little time in its own end as possible, and with a stable of good passing and puck rushing defensemen, they have the personnel to play that kind of system effectively. Their mid-season turnaround last year had a lot to do with Lindy ditching his focus on positional puck possession and transitioning to a more attacking style of hockey that resulted in a lot of goals scored in transition. If Terry Pegula and Ted Black aren’t going to show Lindy the door after this most recent stretch of play, the least he can do is return to playing to the strengths of this roster and putting “the system” back on the shelf.