Monday, November 23, 2015

Some changes are needed on the Sabres powerplay

Reprinted with permission from

After seeing the Buffalo Sabres get shutout at Dallas vs. the league's No. 1 team, the overall feeling I got was that the Stars schooled 'em. Not so much in an overpowering, in your face trampling, but more like schooled them on how the little things matter in a big way.

The Sabres played the Stars fairly tough. Dallas has an extremely fast team that plays in overdrive the entire game. On a few occasions the Sabres were able to nullify the Stars' speed by putting a body on the man while at other times they were able to disrupt the play with good defense and proper angles. There were also times where Buffalo was able to show off some of their own speed and skate right with them. But, most of the time the Sabres were just trying to keep up and often times the Stars went into overdrive on the transition after gaining possession of the puck by great stickwork and/or beating Buffalo to loose pucks-- the little things that vets will do to a young team like Buffalo has.

Yet, the Sabres were in it most of the game until the Stars' Jamie Benn scored on the powerplay at the 7:11-mark of the third period. Benn's quick marker off the rush less than two minutes later sealed the 3-0 victory for Dallas.

As mentioned in the last blog, entering last night's game the Stars were 9-1-0 when leading after one period, 6-0-0 when leading after two. Buffalo would fall behind in the first period once again for the fourth game in a row (0-2-2 during that stretch,) but had a glorious opportunity to tie the score in the second as they had yet another 5-on-3 for :54 to begin the period. All for naught as they couldn't get anything going.

Perhaps they had too much time to strategize between periods or perhaps they just didn't have it together. For the first 1:06 of the Stars first penalty, Buffalo registered zero shots on goal as the Stars 20th-ranked penalty kill unit bottled them up pretty well. The Sabres started the second period with :54 left on their two-man advantage and guessed it, zero shots on goal.

The Sabres have had a two-man advantage in three of the last four games (twice vs. St. Louis) for a total of 4:53 but have come up empty. In fact they have one powerplay goal in 13 opportunities (7.7% conversion rate) over the last four games. Sabres captain Brian Gionta, who is a part of the first powerplay unit told reporters after the game that missing an opportunity during a 5-on-3 was "deflating," as it could have gotten the team right back into the game.

Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma still has the NHL's fourth-ranked powerplay, but it's impotence is costing the team as of late and perhaps we'll see some changes.

The first unit last night had Gionta, Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart up front with Tyler Ennis and Cody Franson at the point. Ennis himself has been in a rut. When Bylsma was asked by a reporter about Ennis's game, suggesting that he was "sloppy with the puck, committed the key penalty (which lead to the Stars' second goal,) and seems to be really out of synch out there in a lot of ways," Bylsma really couldn't answer it himself. He simply said to the reporter, "I think you just answered the question."

It's been said that Ennis is a notoriously slow starter and despite his rough patches he's still third on the team in scoring with 10 points (3+7) in two less games than those around him. He should come out of it. And despite his Derek Roy-like dipsy-doodle turnovers and him doing a whole lot of choppin' with no chips-a-flying, ala Max Afinogenov, Ennis pushes the pace, plays edgy and plays with a sense of urgency.

Whether he should be at the point on the powerplay is a different argument, but he should be on the top powerplay unit despite his troubles.

One thing that Bylsma might be able to do is replace Cody Franson on the 1st pp-unit right point with Rasmus Ristolainen.

If you've read any of what I've written going back as long as the "Franson to Buffalo" rumors have been around, I'm not a big fan. When GM Tim Murray signed him to a team-friendly, two-year contract, I understood what he was able to get with Franson, but still couldn't reconcile bringing aboard a powerplay specialist with serious deficiencies in his own zone who is a below-average skater.

The stats are there on the powerplay, especially that monster year he had with Toronto a few years back, and Franson has been able to contribute for the Sabres as he's first amongst Buffalo defensemen with 2:55 ATOI, with zero goals and five assists. Something not found on the stat-sheet is his penchant for slow, casual approach to the game, something that's much too reminiscent of the team known as "the core."

Stats-wise, you're getting more bang for your buck with Ristolainen. He's been on the second powerplay with two powerplay goals and three assists in 2:26 ATOI. But Ristolainen is also on the top penalty kill unit (2:35 ATOI) and leads the team with an average of 24:10 per game which is 19th in the league. That's a lot of minutes for a 21 yr. old.

Perhaps Bylsma can take some of the pressures of Ristolainen playing against the top players in all situations by using the Zach Bogosian/Jake McCabe pairing a little more 5-on-5. Since Bogosian returned from injury three games ago, that pairing has been solid. Not without their fair share of mistakes, mind you, but solid none-the-less.

Regardless of what the coaching staff might do, the powerplay needs a shake up, even if it's only one player.

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