Note: this is being re-posted today (October 4th) as part of our 2011-12 season preview. While written in June, the information below is more relevant now than ever.
I’m donning my professor’s cap today.
Remember my cute little “picket fence defense” lecture?
No? Sigh. Well pay attention now kids, because this stuff is important. And it will be on the test – the test that is a Stanley Cup Final. Got your attention now, I bet. Good. Moving on.
Back before the playoffs started, I analyzed what was one of the more glaring weaknesses on the Sabres roster – their young defense. Since then, the Sabres collapsed out of the first round, and Lindy Ruff didn’t waste much time in declaring that one of the team’s top priorities in the off-season will be to “develop a lockdown pair.”
When all else fails, buy the school a building. Or in our case, a new defense.
I know that many Sabres fans would love for Darcy Reiger to take his new, fat, diamond studded Sabres wallet and hand it straight over to Brad Richards’ agent when UFA negotiations open up on July 1st. Admittedly, I’m one of them. I’m a glutton for goals, and could only imagine how many we would be all gorging on if Richards was lined up between Vanek and Stafford.
But folks, we must remain focused. Our problem at defense hasn’t gone away. And it’s a big problem.
From that initial lecture:
(On March 18th) The Sabres have 203 goals for and 202 goals against. This equal ratio is a stat that has been dogging them for months. They can’t seem to score more goals then they allow, and I find that disturbing. What is more disturbing is every team ahead of Buffalo, save Tampa Bay, enjoys a wide winning margin in that category. (Carolina posts a terrible 198/212.) Brad Boyes was a nice addition for the stretch run, but this team is going to learn to have to finish as well as play smarter defense – and quickly – if they are to make the playoffs, or survive the 1st round.
Since the 18th, the Sabres have gone 5-1-1. Accordingly, their goals for/goals against ratio improved dramatically, to 226/214. It’s a telling stat: Carolina has gone 4-1 since the 18th, and their ratio has markedly improved to 220/228.
Stick with me here, class. I’ve gone back and bold-faced the key points, and will continue below:
So what does it all mean?
For Buffalo, it means that the Sabres, for the greater portion of the regular season, have not been able to score enough goals to keep up with the amount that they let in. Their offense has scored enough goals (226) to be ranked 4th in the East in that category, trailing only Philadelphia (243), Boston (232), and Tampa Bay (230).
The Sabres’ offense is great, but their defense is, well, not so great. The teams ahead of them, those considered to be front-runners for a shot at the Cup, all show a commanding mastery of the goals for/goals against ratio, and it’s no coincidence – teams control the scoreboard by keeping all three zones under control. It’s the Sabres’ play in their back end – the first step of every hockey rush, and the front lines of defense against a flurry from the opposition – that have kept them out of Cup talk, let alone much playoff talk.
The obvious statement from the professor troll in the front row here is “Ah yes, defense does win championships.” This is where I glare at said troll and say “Don’t cheapen my lectures with cliches.” There really is a lot to consider when putting a championship defense together, folks – and we’ll look at how that has been done over the last 10 years. Let’s quickly finish up reviewing this previous lecture, first. (Exasperated raspberry sigh from the dude in the back row, and pen clicking all over the place, I know, I know – stick with me.)
Buffalo is no lock for the playoffs, and the reason for this is the failure to be reliable in all three zones of the ice. Lindy Ruff has implemented a style of play – “The System” – which is supposed to keep all players, at all times, focused on controlling the puck, the play, and the game. The Sabres do their best, but their young defense just isn’t smart and experienced enough yet. In fact, Buffalo only has three defenders over the age of 24. A disturbing list:
- Steve Montador, 31
- Jordan Leopold, 30
- Shaone Morrisson, 28
- Chris Butler, 24
- Andrej Sekera, 24
- Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
- Mike Weber, 23
- Tyler Myers, 21
Of those guys over 24, Morrisson has hardly been a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador have not been able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there is a weakness of the Blue and Gold that teams are going to expose until the end of this hockey year, it is going to be the green defense corps. Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel is exposed.
I put that last sentence in bold because I really dig it.
Anyway, the Sabres problem is not effectually at center. Yes, they certainly need to add more talent and depth at that position, but last season proved that they certainly have no problem scoring goals. Brad Richards is a sexy idea, I get that – but if adding him means ignoring the need to augment our defense corps, then our Stanley Cup dreams are likely doomed.
Now, let’s talk about how a championship defense is made.
Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal wrote a smart piece that not only confirmed my worries about our green defense, but provided an analysis of all Cup-winning team defenses from the last ten years (this year’s Bruins excluded). The results of his study are truly damning of our current roster.
Please welcome our guest lecturer for the day. Take it away, Bruce:
My own approach here will (namely be) to examine the defence corps of all Stanley Cup champions over the last decade. How did the winners go about assembling their blueline crews? Let’s have a quick look team-by-team and then draw some broader conclusions.
Bruce's first slide.
(After referencing the next 9 winning defenses, McCurdy went on to assess his findings):
As a whole, the champion defencemen were a veteran group. The average age was something over 30, with the top-pairing guys averaging a year or two more than that. Among 28 minute-munchers who averaged over 20 minutes a night (highlighted in bold), fifteen were 30 or older, just three 25 or younger.
Each of the last four Stanley Cup champs has featured a major UFA signing on the back end.
Thank you, Bruce. I’ll take it from here.
This season, our defense was exposed. It was exposed in the regular season. It was exposed in the playoffs. This is not a defense that gets to the Big Dance. This is the kind of defense that your own offense has to outscore.
I do believe that Sekera, Butler, Weber, Gragnani, and of course, Myers, are all going to evolve into top-notch defenders in their own niches, as they get older. The problem right now, however, is Ryan Miller is 31, and he is getting older too. The “old core” of Roy, Pominville, Vanek, et al simply cannot afford to wait for this group of young defensemen to mature. Pegula has this team on a very specific course right now – to win a Cup in three years. In order to make that possible, balance has to be restored between the offense and defense.
There are plenty of UFA defensemen available this summer that fit this very simple but desperate need. Meanwhile, the Sabres do have good trading power with these kids on the back end – as well as several blue chip defensive prospects. Buffalo would be wise to use this cache to either regain that 2nd round pick that they lost in the Brad Boyes trade – or dare I dream, to make a package deal to lure a stud center like Paul Stastny away from a team.
From here, what needs to be done is clear. The defense has to be bolstered. It can be done, and at the same time, the center position can be improved.
It’s now up to Headmaster Darcy to make it happen.
See also: “We’ve got a lot of Defensemen: How to Add Bieksa, Ehrhoff, or Wisniewski;” “Target: Brent Burns;” “Target: Paul Stastny“
Richards. Bieksa. Ehrhoff. Wisniewski.
There have been some big UFA names bandied about this town since the Sabres Game Seven Meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers. But in all seriousness, which of these guys do we really expect to sign on to year one of the Pegula Experience? A quick analysis:
- Richards – strongly tied to the New York Rangers, or an “original six” team; has also stated a willingness to return to Tampa Bay
- Bieksa/Erhoff – one of these guys will stay with the ‘Nucks, the other will be pursued by every other team in the NHL
- Wisniewski – has already stated he wants to stay in Montreal and raise a family; Habs will do everything they can to keep him
The July 1st spending spree is not exactly a statistical “home run derby” for contracts, anyway (see: Drury, Chris; Gomez, Scott; etc). Invasive baseball metaphors aside, the Sabres will and should look to bolster their lineup on July 1st – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a “curveball” or two up their sleeves.
Another baseball metaphor? Must be 75 and beautiful outside. Before I go outside for some much-earned sunshine, here’s one big-time surprise maneuver that the Sabres could pull off.
Trade for Brent Burns.
The call of the Wild.
Burns isn’t an UFA – yet – his contract expires after next season. However, as Michael Russo reports today from the Minnesota Star Tribune, he could very well be available on the trade market. His speculation:
With the NHL draft on June 24-25 in St. Paul, trade talks are commencing and Fletcher (the Wild’s GM) says he’s willing to trade anybody — except captain Mikko Koivu.
The Wild has missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons — two under Fletcher — so he says he’d do “absolutely anything,” other than, “I’m not trading Mikko Koivu. I can guarantee you that.”
The biggest decision brewing is with defenseman Brent Burns, who scored a career-high 17 goals and 46 points last season. Burns, who struggled in the season’s second half, is a year from unrestricted free agency, meaning, as with Koivu last summer, the Wild might need to decide to either extend his contract or trade him.
Burns could command at least $5 million annually.
Fletcher said he feels no urgency to sign or trade Burns this summer, but the Wild has been down that road before. Marian Gaborik turned down a long-term deal in early 2008-09, then missed 65 games because of injury. That destroyed his trade value, and he ultimately signed as a free agent with the Rangers.
Burns also has a history of injury, but Fletcher said, “There’s a risk for any player, there’s risk in any decision you make. … If we can’t get a contract done, that’ll have an impact on his future the same as it would have with Koivu or Gaborik or anybody.”
So, why Brent Burns for Buffalo – and at what cost? First, let’s examine his dry stats:
Stats aside, he has a respectable woodsy charm about him, wouldn't you agree?*
The Sabres could award Brad Richards with the greater portion of their available cap space, (a dangerous idea as we’ve talked about on Buffalo Sabres Nation previously), but remember that at 31 years of age Richards is not entering his prime, and is coming off of a concussion.
Burns also sustained a concussion in both the 2008-09 and the 2009-10 seasons, but he is only 26 years old, and judging by his stats, he is up for a stellar career. He’d come at a lesser price, would have a better long term impact – and heck, he’s a regional kid, coming out of Ajax, Ontario.
Buffalo needs to add veteran depth to the defensive corps right now. They can’t wait for a guy like Brayden McNabb to earn his way up to the NHL if the Sabres are to win the Stanley Cup in 3 years. With Ryan Miller at 30 years old, now is the time to beef up the men that protect him and truly make a run at the Cup.
The Sabres have a plethora of young defensemen along with several blue chip defensive prospects – too many to fit on the roster any time soon. Plausibly, they could part with one of them and the #1 pick in this year’s draft to land Burns.
Then, maybe, after the Sabres depart with a little bit of that crowded defensive depth chart, they could pursue one of those stud UFAs. Myers, Burns, and Wisniewski sounds like a pretty scary top three to me.
Your move, Darcy.
*And it’s no coincidence. Off the ice, Burns spends his summers in Barrie, Ontario and Lake Elmo, Minnesota and is a noted animal enthusiast. His suburban Saint Paul home is nicknamed “Burns Zoo,” due to his collection of dogs, cats, and dozens of reptiles, mainly snakes.
Something’s gotta’ give.
The Sabres would purportedly like to add to their defense to develop a true shutdown pair. Buffalo’s locker room is already pretty full, however. If Pegula and Regier pull in a big name on July 1st, then a player (or two) are going to have to be shown the Zamboni door.
At the beginning of the season, Vancouver fans were clamoring for Kevin Bieksa to be dealt for a bag of pucks. After a strong year, and a particularly snarly post-season, he is the top defensive UFA of 2011.
The Sabres defense is simply too young.
As I’ve described before, the Sabres defense is full of greenhorns. If Pegula and Co. really want to win a Cup in the next 2-3 years, then the Sabres will need to add grit and experience on that blue line.
Meanwhile, the news out of Montreal was that the Habs finally came to terms with ’04 draftee, Alexei Yemelin. This could mean that UFA James Wisniewski will not be re-signed by Montreal – and should then be immediately pursued by the Sabres. From the the Montreal Gazette:
“The signing gives the Canadiens three defencemen under contract for next season – Yemelin, P.K. Subban and Jaroslav Spacek. Next up for negotiations are unrestricted free-agent Andrei Markov and restricted free-agent Josh Gorges. Both finished last season on the long-term injured reserve list after major reconstructive surgeries.”
“The Canadiens are unlikely to bring back James Wisniewski or Brent Sopel because of cap restraints, but Hal Gill and/or Roman Hamrlik are possibilities.”
At 27 years of age, Wisniewski (or “Wiz,” as he is called) has everything Buffalo needs – the age, the experience, the point production, the mean streak, heck, he even has a rare right handed shot for the power play. These are all qualities that Buffalo should covet.
The Sabres exited the playoffs with only three players on defense over the age of 24. A disturbing list:
- Steve Montador, 31
- Jordan Leopold, 30
- Shaone Morrisson, 28
- Chris Butler, 24
- Andrej Sekera, 24
- Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
- Mike Weber, 23
- Tyler Myers, 21
Of those guys over 24, Morrisson was hardly a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador were not able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there was a major weakness of the Blue and Gold that was exploited in the series against Philadelphia, it was the green defense corps (see: Butler getting victimized behind his own net).
Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel lies.
A few more points on “Wiz” that should get you thinking:
- 51 points (10g, 41a) in 75 games last year (his highest offensive totals, as he now enters his prime)
- 7 power play goals
- Smart hitter – only took 38 PIM’s
- 119 blocked shots (for the Sabres, Montador had 138, Leopold 123, Weber 99)
Pegula is in a lucky spot right now – the old core boys, Roy, Miller, Pominville, Vanek, et al are still around as the new core boys, such as Myers, Ennis, Weber and Gragnani are coming up. Both cores are full of talent, both are full of the desire to win, but the defense remains perilously inexperienced.
Pegula noted when he came in that the loss of key veterans Toni Lydman and Hank Tallinder was a major mistake. If Terry is looking to restore that sort of stability on the back end again, you better believe he will write Darcy Regier a veritable blank check to land Wisniewski.
Of course, there are plenty of other teams out there (likely all of them) that would love to add Wisniewski to their club, and there is no guarantee Wisniewski will want to leave. Despite the Canadiens’ cap constraints, he appears to be ready to take a pay cut in order to stay in Montreal, where he apparently wants to raise a family.
Perhaps part of Darcy’s pitch should be how great a family town Buffalo is.
See also: James Wisniewski’s blog.