Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-26-2016
After laying down a brief summation of the forwards to this point in the season, it's time to direct our attention to those who play below the blueline. A quick reminder, the Sabres headed into the Christmas break with a 12-13-8 record good for 32 points which is one point ahead of last year's team after 33 games.
It should also be noted that injuries have hit the d-corps to the point where Buffalo elected to call up a defenseman from the CHL's Western Hockey League. Things are back to normal and it should also be noted that the Sabres' 2.61 goals against average is tied for 11th in the league.
Rasmus Ristolainen--Whoever stated through advanced stats that the Sabres would be better without Ristolainen is eating a huge plate of crow right now. Statistics are what they are but if you've watched Ristolainen's development it's been upward and steady. He continues to eat up minutes nearly reaching Duncan Keith levels (26:35/game) and is on pace for a 60-point season. His minus-4 rating isn't the greatest but he's been minus-3 the last three games while being paired with a less than ideal d-partner. Good thing advanced stats aren't the sole consideration for Norris Trophy nominations otherwise Ristolainen and Norris wouldn't be mentioned in the same book, much less the same sentence.
Jake McCabe--McCabe was Ristolainen's d-partner for most of the season up until recently when head coach Dan Bylsma inexplicably split them up. Maybe he wanted to distribute the talent more evenly amongst the d-corps? Who knows? But McCabe has shown the capacity to hold the fort on the top-pairing and should remain there. The 22 yr. old keeps pushing his own envelope playing as hard and as fast
as he can possibly go. In doing so he’s prone to mistakes, but all-in-all
McCabe continues to make great strides in only his second full NHL season. Love
his aggressiveness as he stands players up all over the ice and love the fact that no matter what happens, he's in overdrive going right back at it.
Dmitry Kulikov--Is the player alluded to above as Ristolainen's less than ideal d-partner. In fact, the problem that Bylsma's having is that Kulikov is nobody's ideal d-partner at this juncture. Kulikov has the size, skating and tools, but he roams around like a free electron out there and often times is way out of position. That's really not the ideal for a defenseman who's second on the team in ATOI at 22:18/game. Kulikov shouldn't be paired with Risto and right now may be a disaster waiting to happen with Zach Bogosian or Cody Franson. Hopefully things will stabilize with him but until that happens, Bylsma will need to lessen the negative impact Kulkiov has had on the team so far.
Zach Bogosian--Bogosian suffered an MCL injury that kept him out the lineup for a month and a half. It looks as if the big, speedy 26 yr. old will need some time to get up to speed, as shown my his minus-4 rating in four games since his return, but he's been around long enough to at least hold the fort no matter who his d-partner is. Except for Kulikov. He's a No. 3 on the Sabres but is probably a No. 4/5 on most teams in the NHL and despite analytics showing a negative side, his physicality and speed from the back-end are necessities in Buffalo right now.
Josh Gorges--Still a favorite whipping boy amongst the Sabres faithful despite solid play in a role that keep him in the bottom half of the corps. Gorges has been playing very well in a third-pairing/top-PK unit role while leaning heavy on the star players he's up against. At 32 yrs. old and with a lot of wear and tear on his body, it seems like a perfect role for Gorges and with his experience the Sabres have themselves a strong complimentary defensive defenseman. His $3.9 million salary is a bit steep for this role but it will have to do for now.
Cody Franson--Franson has been playing much better this season, especially when given more minutes when Bogosian and Kulikov were sidelined simultaneously. In fact, he was impressive at times. That said, he's a very slow and has a tendency to have his shots blocked quite a bit. Often times as I watch him play he looks as if he's very analytics-conscious and that everything he does is to pad his fancy stats. Although I might be exaggerating a bit, his shots are weak (save for his one goal which was scored with authority) and his prodding pace gives him the opportunity to make the safest pass.
Justin Falk--Although his big, bruising game is somewhat archaic, I like what he brings to the table. At 6'5" 222 lbs. he is a bruiser and when asked to hold the fort along with Taylor Fedun, his Rochester Americans d-partner, they did quite well all things considered. Falk is still in the lineup due to a Franson injury and to be honest, he'd be a much better choice on the third pairing than Kulikov would be at this time. Dependent upon what Murray wants to do with a poor Rochester club this season, Falk could either go the Amerks and help them out or stay with the big club as a ready d-man.
Taylor Fedun--Was a pleasant surprise as an emergency call-up for the Sabres. Fedun came back down to earth a bit after he debuted with a three-game point streak, but his skating and puck-moving never waned. Whether he's a late-bloomer or not, the 28 yr. old made a very good impression. Too bad he got injured.
Casey Nelson--Nelson showed he's not ready for the NHL. It's about the only way it can be said. Not sure where his AHL seasoning will lead him, or how long it will take for him to be ready for Sabres' duty, but we found out that it won't be this season.
Brendan Guhle--Guhle's back in Junior after his three-game emergency call-up back in November. Most feel as if he should have made the team instead of Nelson and in hindsight, that would be correct. Having said that, I think one more year in Junior will do wonders for what should be a very long and productive career. Right now he's projected as a second-pairing defenseman, but from what we've seen so far--in Rochester last season and in Buffalo this season--he may have a little more than that to offer.
Robin Lehner--I'm gonna type this word, and as I do, Sabreland will shiver after reading it--shootouts. Lehner is not good at them, at least to this point in his career. For a guy who is (still) as intense as anyone out there one would think that he wouldn't be intimidated by much of anything. It's a huge mental hurdle he'll need to overcome, but other than that, his 2.45 GAA and .921 Sv% are much more solid than his 7-10-5 record would indicate. Will always have to live up to the first round pick Murray gave up for him and it may take some time.
Anders Nilsson--After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in the shootout, Nilsson was heir apparent to former goalie Jonas Enroth's "Truth" moniker. Nilsson has played well at times but has also had strong goal support from the skaters. He has a 5-3-3 record with a 2.47 GAA and .925 Sv%. Nilsson's play has declined since the Pens win and in his last performance against the NY Islanders, he looked like a career back-up or worse.
The long season has a way of evening things out so past results are not indicative of what the future might hold. For the team and individual players as well it was a rough 33 games. Hopefully the future will be brighter.