Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Yesterday we looked at the forwards and where they stood, today it's time for the defense and goalies.
Much to the surprise of many, the defense has been playing much better than expected and it's helped the goaltenders out as well. When there have been breakdowns on defense the goaltenders have come up with some pretty good stops.
One thing to keep in mind when looking at those behind the blueline, there are a bevy of forwards lead by Ryan O'Reilly, Zemgus Girgensons and even a hard back-checking Jack Eichel who've gotten on their horses to help out in the defensive zone. Sure, there have been breakdowns coupled with miscommunication leading to goals, but the Sabres' surprising 2.53 team goals-against average (14th in the league) is far superior to anything we've seen over the course of the last three seasons.
Some quick hits on the defensemen and goalies at the Christmas break:
Rasmus Ristolainen--"has become an absolute beast." Those aren't my words (at least not my exact words, I called him "a bad man") rather they came from Ryan Kennedy of the hockey news. Ristolainen is all of 21 yrs. old and he's leading the Sabres blueline in all categories while leading the team in total ice-time. He's also on a pace to score almost 60 points, something that hasn't been done since recent Hall of Fame inductee Phil Housley (81 points) did so back in the 1989-90 season.
Jake McCabe--One of McCabe's most impressive traits is his recuperative powers. He'll have a rough period only to come back immediately with an outstanding one and he'll do that with shifts as well. It's probably the most important thing a young defenseman can do--forget about his mistakes. McCabe continues to impress with his skating, smarts and hitting. He's good with the stick on defense, has a scoring touch as well, finds the open ice and has a good grasp of when to pinch. And he's 22 yrs. old with only 40 NHL games played thus far in his young career.
Josh Gorges--has been playing an underrated, shutdown game for the Sabres while being on the top-pairing with Ristolainen. Gorges had some injury problems last season which affected his game and ultimately affected how he was perceived by those in Sabreland. Although he doesn't look out of place next to a stud like Ristolainen, a second-pairing spot where he can be a shutdown force may be in the cards for him sometime in the near future. Should Buffalo find that top-pairing, left-handed d-man (and who knows, it may end up possibly being McCabe) then having Gorges on the second-pairing with top-PK duties would be a great thing for the defense.
Cody Franson--when he tries to step into one from the point oft-times it sails ten feet wide and has players ducking for cover all over the zone. He's got the intensity of Thomas Vanek and can skate just about as fast, neither of which are good things. Although he has some pretty good skills and I understand why he was signed, he doesn't seem to fit the mold of what GM Tim Murray wants out of his players. All said, he serves his purpose as a very affordable 3rd-pairing d-man with some powerplay acumen.
Mark Pysyk--should simply be known as the quite one, as in he quietly goes about his business playing shutdown defense while moving the puck smoothly out of his zone under the most intense pressure. Reminds me of the most underrated Buffalo Sabre of all time--Bill Hajt. The Sabres would do real well moving forward with a shutdown d-man of that caliber.
Carlo Colaiacovo--Has exceeded modest expectations in his reserve/bottom-pairing role. Although he ain't Niklas Lidstrom, Colaiacovo is veteran of over 450 regular season NHL games knows his way around the ice. And he knows his role too.
Mike Weber--much maligned and often a whipping boy, Weber's rarely given full credit for his role as a bottom-pairing/reserve d-man with bite. He makes his mistakes and fumbles around on occasion, like many do, but he's been able to hold his own on the back-end and has played to his level. One thing you gotta like is that he's unafraid to do the dirty work.
Zach Bogosian--although he's recovered from an injury that had him miss the first month and a half of the regular season, he's still getting up to game-speed. Dude can really skate and rattle the boards with one of his checks. Although he's a bit overzealous in the hitting department, while also getting caught out of position because of it, he's pretty sound in his own end. Plus he's got an attitude too.
In the net:
Chad Johnson--simply put, has been outstanding. Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma loves Johnson's calm demeanor in net. "Johnny" has gained the confidence of coaches and players and seems to be getting better and stronger in net. Coughing up juicy rebounds has been a major roadblock to No. 1 goalie status for him but as of late he's been getting a handle on those. Not sure when the last time his confidence-level was this high, if ever. When Robin Lehner comes back from injury, it will be interesting to see how each react to the other as Johnson's making a case to remain the starter.
Linus Ullmark--while Lehner and Johnson may be battling it out for the starters-role near-term, Ullmark should be in that mix a few years down the road. For a 22 yr. old rookie goaltender playing his first pro season in North America, he's acquitted himself quite well. Early in the season Bylsma was impressed with Ullmark's calm demeanor under pressure. Still looks like a rook on many occasions, especially when he's lunging, but all-in-all, a fine NHL debut thus far for the 6'4" 212 lb. Ulmark